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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona baseball has turned around team attitude

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Arizona baseball coach Andy Lopez walks back into the dugout during Arizona’s 10-7 win against Oakland at Hi Corbett Field on Feb. 24. Lopez and the Wildcats have turned around the team attitude, and record, this season.

It’s hard to believe that a year ago, Arizona baseball was on the road to anywhere but Omaha in its worst season of the Andy Lopez era.

March 8 marked one year since the 2014 team voted to indefinitely suspend then-starter Joseph Maggi for allegedly showing up to a game intoxicated. The then-junior outfielder sat out five games before returning to the lineup as a substitute.

That was the tipping point for how the team’s season would pan out.

Before then, Arizona had endured a five-game losing streak, getting swept by Seton Hall and Long Beach State. Players also had to readjust to coach Andy Lopez, who had been out all fall after undergoing quadruple bypass surgery. Arizona won the Pac-12 Conference opener against Washington State when Maggi, a starter on the 2012 national championship team, was reinstated but fell into an eight-game losing streak after.

The Wildcats finished 22-33 overall and 9-21 in conference play, not exactly the record expected from a team that swept the road to Omaha, Neb., and College World Series just two years prior.

After a long road to nowhere last season, this year’s Bat ’Cats are back with a vengeance and are determined to redeem their name as a top baseball program.

Already 15-4, the Wildcats have begun to defy the odds, climbing up from an unranked preseason status to debuting at No. 27 in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll this week. Arizona’s only losses came from current ranked teams No. 10 Rice and No. 15 Mississippi State.

“They’ve really done a good job after the sour, sour year last year,” Lopez said. “One of the things I’ve been really conscientious about is that we needed to get an attitudinal change.”

The change is something you can see on the field. Arizona has stayed in the mix through all 19 games, not giving up a lead when ahead in the sixth inning or later, and even taking back-to-back leads away from Portland last Saturday and Sunday to sweep the series.

Lopez said at the beginning of the season that the lack of competitiveness last year was strange and uncharacteristic of ball programs he has been part of.

“I’ve been doing this for 38 years,” Lopez, 61, said. “If you were to tell me my team wouldn’t compete — well, they may not always be good, but they should always compete.”

This year’s squad, including Maggi — who is out six to eight weeks after suffering a torn hamstring in last Friday’s series opener against Portland — has recognized last year’s pitfalls, and they’ve come in with the mindset that it may not be easy, but it will get done.

Even outfielder transfer Ryan Aguilar knows he plays a role in Arizona’s success. The junior from Santa Ana college has played in seven games, starting in six of them.

“Competition is what I like, and I’m ready to do that, even if that doesn’t mean I’m always starting,” Aguilar said.

That being said, Aguilar said he still looks up to Wildcat veterans Riley Moore, Scott Kingery and Kevin Newman. Kingery and Newman lead the club in batting average, at .458 and .443, respectively.

The team’s batting average stands at .339 heading into Pac-12 play. It finished at .280 last season.

“The older guys are teaching [us] how to be tough, more efficient, how to play the game better and play a full nine innings with 100 percent effort,” Aguilar said.

That 100 percent effort is something Kingery said Arizona  needs to continue to be tenacious about, especially when it comes to capitalizing on big hitters who get on base.

“There’s some situations we need to work on,” the second baseman said. “When there’s two-out hitters when there’s bases loaded, or guys on second and third, we need to bring them home.”

A little over a quarter of the way into its season, Arizona has already left 154 batters on base. It’s on track to put up the same number it did in last season’s flop, when it left 450 on.

But conference play is something those on the confident team say they need and are ready for, starting with this weekend’s Pac-12 opener against Utah, one of two conference teams Arizona won a series against last season.

“We don’t come here to Arizona to play these other teams; we come here to play in the Pac,” Kingery said. “We’re excited, we’re ready to get after it and we’re going to see what we’ve got.”

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Follow Nicole Cousins on Twitter.

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