Tucson, Ariz. — Schools across the conference began classes earlier this week and with the beginning of the Spring semester brings the first practice for many Pac-12 baseball squads. I was fortunate enough to attend the University of Arizona Baseball Media Day at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson on Friday to get an advanced look at head coach Andy Lopez‘s 2014 squad.
The 2012 National Champions enter this season with something to prove. After being snubbed by the NCAA postseason selection committee following a 2013 campaign that saw the Wildcats mark a 34-21 (15-15 Pac-12) record, they are hungrier than ever.
The Wildcats return 19 players and welcome 15 newcomers. The ‘Cats lost their two biggest guns after the 2013 season in Brandon Dixon and Johnny Field and will need to replace their big bats. Dixon led the Pac-12 in batting average with .369 and Field was three spots behind him at .347.
Junior second baseman Trent Gilbert returns and finished 2013 with a respectable .344, fifth best in the conference. Freshman All-American shortstop Kevin Newman also ranked in the Top 10 with his .336 batting average. Five players from 2013 were tops in the conference for on base percentage including junior outfielder Joseph Maggi, Jr., junior catcher Riley Moore and sophomore outfielder Zach Gibbons.
Arizona was the only team in the conference with a batting average over .300 and led the conference with a .306 average. The Wildcats also led the conference in triples (35), on base percentage (.400) and stolen bases (98).
While the Wildcats bats were hot in 2013, their pitching rotation was lukewarm at best. Returning hurlers senior James Farris (5-5), junior Tyler Crawford (7-2) and junior Matt Troupe (6-0, 9 saves) are part of the National Championship team that Coach Lopez calls “proven veterans.” Sophomore pitcher Tyger Talley (4-0) and incoming freshman Morgan Earman from Palm Desert, Calif. are looking to make big stands this year on the mound.
Of the 15 newcomers, Coach Lopez speaks highest of local product Michael Hoard who will hit in the middle of the lineup and play first base and Bobby Dalbec, out of Parker, Colo. who Lopez calls “a big time, jewel of an athlete with tremendous power.” Other key new additions include infielders Willie Calhoun and Kenny Memerstorf.
Arizona knows that playing in the Pac-12 Conference is the most difficult conference in the country. Six current head coaches have championship rings and there is 17 total championships among member schools, nearly half of the next closest conference (SEC) with nine.
Arizona knows that conference rivals USC, Arizona State and Stanford all rank in the top five for most College World Series wins with USC and ASU making it to the finals a staggering 24 times combined. With all this knowledge, Coach Lopez believes that this team has the talent and the ability to make the postseason year in and year out.
If the 2012 postseason is any indicator, just making the tournament is enough for Arizona as they won 10 straight games en route to their National Championship including wins over national seeds UCLA, Florida State and South Carolina.
Prior to the first home stand, fans will get a chance to meet the players and coaches on February 1 at Hi Corbett Field. Five lucky fans will also have a chance to throw out the first pitch, be an assistant first base coach in the first inning, hang out with Coach Lopez in the third inning, be a guest P.A. announcer in the fifth inning and also be the first in line for the post-game autograph session. Follow @ArizonaBaseball on Twitter for more information on the gameday experience.
Arizona’s season begins the weekend of February 14-16 welcoming the Kent State Golden Flashes out of the Mid-American Conference with the first pitch at Hi Corbett Field at 6 p.m. MT.