UA baseball wins opener; heart surgery hasn’t slowed coach

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                </div>  It had to feel good to be back in the dugout again, watching his University of Arizona baseball team win its opening series of the season against Kent State […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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It had to feel good to be back in the dugout again, watching his University of Arizona baseball team win its opening series of the season against Kent State – the 20th consecutive season the Wildcats have started the season with a series winner.

But for the Cats’ head coach, Andy Lopez, it just felt good to be alive and able to continue coaching.  Last October he underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery that called into question whether he would be back on the diamond for his 33rd year as a college coach.

Those thoughts didn’t linger long.  He missed fall practice, but met with his players in December to let them know he was coming back stronger than ever.  By January, he was out on the field to oversee individual workouts.

And over the weekend, he was back on his usual perch on the dugout steps at Hi Corbett Field to make sure the 2014 edition gets off on the right foot.  His team didn’t let him down, opening the season with a 13-1 rout of Kent State Friday and coming back Sunday to close the door on the three-game series in a 7-1 romp.  On Saturday, the Golden Flashes picked up their only win by stunning the Cats with 11 runs in the first inning and then holding on for a 14-5 victory.

Nearly 10,000 fans showed up for the weekend series, as Arizona began what many feel will be a return trip to Omaha for the College World Series, and maybe even an opportunity to play for its second national title in three years.

The Cats brought the crown home to Tucson in 2012, but were snubbed last year by the NCAA selection committee and found themselves staying home after winning 34 games – just three fewer than they compiled the season they went all the way.  It was the first time in four years that Arizona didn’t get an invite.

They tried to make an argument off their strong showing at season’s end, when they won six of their last 10 games and swept USC in the final series.  To add further insult, they took two of three games from rival Arizona State – which did go to the CWS.

All of which has provided a ton of motivation to get back to Omaha this year.

And Lopez has the horses in the stable to get it done.

The announcement by James Farris in the off-season that he will return to the mound for one more year solidified a pitching rotation that will be capable of pitching this team deep into the post-season.  Farris, who was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 15th round of the MLB draft but elected to come back for his senior season, was the No. 2 pitcher in the Wildcat rotation last season and will take on the role of ace this year.

The 6’2″ right-hander from Highland High School in Gilbert was the starter – and winning pitcher – for the first game of the 2012 College World Series as the Cats worked their way to the national title. He’ll be joined by a couple of juniors, Tyler Crawford and Mathew Troupe, who were also on the pitching staff in Omaha and will provide a big part of the upperclassmen leadership for this year’s squad.  Crawford is another local recruit who played at Sunrise Mountain High School in Peoria.

Three other juniors who were also starters on the 2012 team – catcher Riley Moore, second baseman Trent Gilbert, and outfielder Joseph Maggi (Brophy Prep) – add even more experience and depth to the roster.

And there is strength up the middle and in the outfield.  Kevin Newman, an All-Pac 12 shortstop, and Gilbert at second form one of the better middle-infield tandems in the country, while the outfield has more experience this year with three players who played key roles last year: Maggi, Scott Kingery (Mountain Pointe HS), and Zach Gibbons (Saguaro HS).  Kingery and Gibbons are both sophomores, but Kingery had 30 starts last year and Gibbons started 49 games.

These guys are talented, motivated, and they’re playing with a chip on their shoulders this season.  And that may be just what’s needed for a return trip to Omaha.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)