UA baseball makes history with series win at Hi Corbett

The Arizona baseball program turned a page of history over the weekend, celebrating with fireworks and ceremonial first pitches to officially open its new home.

But the invited guests from North Dakota State very nearly rained on the parade.

The Bisons came into Hi Corbett Field, the brand spankin’ new home of the Wildcats, on Friday for a three-game series that would mark the first time since 1967 that the University of Arizona baseball program has not called Frank Sanchet Stadium its home.

Now they aren’t even playing on campus any longer.  Hi Corbett is a city-owned facility that has been used for major-league spring training  and minor-league games (See phxfan article 8/11/11).  The university signed a 10-year lease to use the professional-quality facility, which underwent $200,000 in renovations to prepare it for the Wildcats’ use.

The Cats, ranked No. 5 in the country, were probably expecting a few easy wins to open the schedule and have a successful coming-out party.  North Dakota State is an NCAA D-I team, but plays in the Summit League and last year finished the season 22-32.  They were picked to finish fourth in a seven-team conference this year.

Everything began according to plan, as Arizona won the opening game in front of 3,997 fans – the largest opening-day crowd in school history.

The Cats jumped out to the lead in the first inning, scoring three runs and then holding off the Bisons behind the pitching of Kurt Heyer and Stephen Manthei to emerge with the historic 3-1 win.  Heyer struck out seven in the seven innings he worked, and then Manthei picked up his first career save by shutting the door in the final two innings.

Just for the record, Joey Rickard became the first runner to cross home plate in the new digs.  He singled to get on base and then Robert Refsnyder drove him home.

But the winds of change blew in for the second game.  The Bisons found their game, and all of sudden the expected sweep of the series was no sure thing.

Despite a 13-strike-out performance by Konner Wade, North Dakota State piled up six runs in the eighth inning and went on to stun the Cats, 8-2.  It was a 2-2 contest when Wade was pulled with one out in the eighth, so his replacement, Vincent Littleman, was credited with the loss.

Arizona found its mojo again in time for the third game and combined a complete-game shutout by James Farris with an offensive onslaught of 11 hits to notch the win – and the series victory.

This was the first career start for Farris, a sophomore who played his junior and senior years at Highland High School in Gilbert.  He struck out six, scattered five hits, and walked none.

Refsnyder was at it again at the plate, getting four hits and three RBIs.  Joey Rickard, Seth Mejias-Brean, and Alex Mejia each contributed a pair of hits.

All in all, it was a festive and successful weekend for the Wildcat program.  The opening game Friday started with ceremonial pitches by former Cats’ coach, Jerry Kindall, and by Hank Rowe, the grandson of another coaching legend at Arizona, Frank Sanchet.  The team’s former field was named Jerry Kindall Field at Frank Sanchet Stadium, to honor both men.

An impressive fireworks display after the game put a punctuation mark on the opening of a new chapter in Arizona baseball history.

There had been some controversy about whether the team should make the move to Hi Corbett.  The athletic director, Greg Byrne, took a lot of heat, particularly from alumni who had played baseball in the old stadium and wanted to keep the tradition.

But if you look at the number of fannies in the seats, always a good barometer, it appears to have been a shrewd move.

Total attendance for the weekend was 8,870.  According to university estimates, that’s nearly a quarter of the entire figure for the 33 home games last season.

Yep.  So far, this move is making Byrne and the other visionaries that supported the move look pretty smart.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)