Andy Lopez may become the Comeback Kid of the 2015 college baseball season. At 61 years of age and not far removed from open-heart surgery, he’s hardly a kid… but he definitely is on the comeback trail this season.
The head coach for the University of Arizona baseball team is rebounding from what was arguably the worst season he has endured during his 13 years directing the Wildcat program – and the first time in his 25 years as a Division I head coach that one of his teams finished 10 games below the break-even mark. The Cats finished last season 22-33.
But this year’s squad has as many wins already and is off to a 7-2 start in Pac-12 play. That’s the same conference start his 2012 team posted – and that team went on to finish with 48 wins and a national championship.
And Arizona will enter this weekend’s series with No. 9 USC with a national ranking of its own. The Cats entered the USA Today Coaches Poll at No. 22 this week, which means they’re now ranked in both major polls. They were No. 20 last week in the Collegiate Baseball rankings, and have moved up to No. 13 this week.
After last season ended so miserably, it would have been hard to imagine making any comparisons between the 2015 edition and the one that brought home a national title three years ago. The 2014 model struggled on offense, lacked a consistently solid defense, was ineffective on the road, and lacked a solid pitching effort. The pitching staff had a combined 4.49 ERA.
That team had a total of eight home runs for the year – which tied for the worse in the Pac-12 – and just four batters hit above .300. They won just one conference series on the road. And they won just four games in the entire final month of the season.
That kind of stress should have been enough to put the veteran skipper back in the hospital, where he underwent open-heart surgery just as fall practice was getting underway. It was a major setback for a coach who was the conference Coach of the Year nine times, in four different conferences, and a national COY three times.
The surgery didn’t keep him from being back in the dugout for the mid-February season opener. But maybe he’d have been better off sitting that season out.
Fast-forward to today. This team is getting ready for tonight’s opener of a three-game series against USC with the confidence that comes following back-to-back conference sweeps of Stanford and No. 18 Oregon.
The three-game sweep of Stanford was the first time in program history the Cats were able to sweep the Cardinal on the road, and the Oregon sweep was the first over a nationally-ranked team since 2012. Yes, that was the year they won the national title. See the similarities?
They begin this weekend’s series leading the nation with a .332 batting average and ranked No. 8 nationally in scoring, with an average of almost eight runs per game.
The Cats are sitting just one game behind Pac-12 leader UCLA. A series win against USC would have major implications, not just in the conference standings, but in the national rankings as well.
If this is to be a comeback that actually puts this team on the road back to Omaha for a potential College World Series appearance, this weekend series with the Trojans will give fans a good indication of whether that’s likely to happen.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)