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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Shortstop more than CapAbel

    Shortstop more than CapAbel

    Robert Abel steps into the batting cage at Sancet Stadium. It’s a Monday, two days after his team finished off a sweep of California to extend its winning streak to 14 games.

    Down to their last few baseballs in batting practice, the Arizona hitters are trying to hit the pitches off the pitcher’s screen on the mound in front of them that’s protecting their head coach, Andy Lopez. Doing so will prolong the session by allowing the balls to be reused.

    “”I’m betting there’s no way on God’s earth you’re hitting this off the screen,”” Lopez said to Abel, gesturing toward right field with his left hand. “”You’re going fly ball to right center field.””

    Lopez turns to Brad Glenn, Arizona’s sophomore third baseman, who’s leaning on the cage.

    “”What do you think, Glenn?”” Lopez asks.

    Glenn points to right field: “”Fly ball.””

    Lopez fires, but it’s low.

    “”That’s a ball,”” the coach said.

    Abel drills the next pitch on a rope – to right field.

    Lopez can’t help himself from laughing as Abel, a freshman, steps out of the cage, walks into a cool April breeze and grips his bat.

    “”It was a good hit,”” Abel said to Lopez, smiling.

    It’s only a glimpse, but in that moment, Abel displays a flash of the confidence he’s been carrying himself with ever since he took over for three-year starting shortstop Jason Donald last fall.

    “”I love it,”” Lopez said of what he calls Abel’s “”self-assurance.””

    “”You’ve gotta have it. At this level? Wow, yeah, you’ve gotta have it.””

    Donald, selected in the third round of last year’s MLB amateur draft by Philadelphia, started all 64 games as a freshman in 2004 before starting 59 the next year and 55 last season. He missed a total of two games his entire career, went to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series in 2004 and left as Arizona’s all-time hit-by-pitch leader.

    But all Abel really knew of Donald before Arizona started to recruit him was the one at-bat he had against him as a freshman at Woodland High School in California.

    Donald, then a pitcher and a shortstop for Buchanan High School in Clovis, Calif., wasted no time with Abel.

    “”He threw gas, and I was this, like, scrawny little kid that just went up there with the bat,”” Abel said, getting into a mock batting stance.

    “”My coach (Javy Valdivia) told me ‘Hey, this guy throws gas, dude. Hey, he’s got a cutter, he’s got this, he’s got that.’ ‘Oh, OK.’ Fastball, 92 (mph), 92 (mph), curveball – OK, I’m walking back to the dugout.

    “”That’s what I knew of him,”” Abel said. “”I had no chance against him when I was in ninth grade.””

    Abel got to know Donald better during his recruitment, but when he was handed the reins in fall ball last year, he said he didn’t try to pick Donald’s brain.

    “”I didn’t really come up to him and be like, ‘How do you do it? Show me the way.’ I really don’t like to do that,”” Abel said. “”If I have a question, I’ll ask, but I don’t think I asked him very much. The only thing I really needed to know was how to experience things, and I guess I have to do that on my own.””

    Abel seemed to find that experience in fall ball, maturing quickly.

    “”I don’t know if they said it, but it was pretty clear that ‘You’re going to get some chances to play here at shortstop, so you better mature quickly and get used to it,'”” said sophomore pitcher Preston Guilmet. “”(The job) was his to lose, losing Donald last year. So I think he made that transfer just because he knew he had to.””

    At 5-foot-7, it’s not a stretch to say that Abel puts the “”short”” in shortstop, but Abel’s defense has made a big impression on his coaches and teammates. It seems as if everyone has a favorite play.

    There’s the headfirst dive he made to tag second base in the resumed ninth inning of a suspended game against Hawaii in mid-March to preserve a 2-1 win.

    “”It was a ground ball right up the middle, and he didn’t throw it to first base, he had a chance to get the guy at second, so he just flat out dove right at second base,”” said second baseman Colt Sedbrook. “”It was real cool.””

    “”That one was OK,”” Abel said, shaking his head. But not his favorite.

    “”I think I made it a little more dramatic than I should have,”” he said. “”I kind of got up and saw the guy wasn’t even running hard, but, whatever, that’s the way I need to be doing things, just full out and not thinking too much, I guess.””

    There’s also the two digs he made deep in the hole with the score tied in two different games against Cal last weekend. And then there’s the play he made against Gonzaga on the opening weekend of the season.

    “”It was a high chopper over the third baseman’s head, over (Erik) Castro’s head, and (Castro) kind of took a step back and looked at it, so I’m like, ‘Ah, cheap, chopper hit,’ “” said pitcher Brad Mills. “”Then I saw Abel come, backhand it, plant and make a strong throw across. I was really surprised that play was made – I mean, best play I’d seen made in a while.””

    It’s Abel’s favorite, too.

    “”I thought that was pretty cool, ’cause it was the first couple of games, and no one really knew what to expect out of me, or what I was going to do,”” he said. “”I kind of surprised myself that I got that, it was one of those short-hops, those bang-bang (plays), and I threw him out.””

    Last weekend, Lopez was asked about his team’s 14-game winning streak. He revisited the topic.

    “”Bobby’s been a big reason for that streak,”” he said, using his nickname for Abel. “”I mean, he’s played solid, solid defense. Man. And we need that. The one thing that gives you consistency is on the mound and defense up the middle.””

    Robert Abel
    by the numbers

    Stolen bases: 21 of 22
    Batting average: .310
    RBIs: 16
    Doubles: 6
    Triples: 3

    Abel tells a story from his playing days in high school, about a time he was asked who was the fastest player on his team.

    Abel told the inquirer, a rival player, that Woodland’s second baseman was pretty quick.

    “”Are you faster than him?”” Abel was asked.

    “”Yeah,”” Abel said. “”I think I might be faster.””

    The other player challenged Abel to a race. Abel didn’t think anything of it, shrugging it off.

    After the game, he got on the team bus, where Woodland’s coach, Javy Valdivia, told Abel someone was waiting for him outside.

    Abel thought it was some friends. It was the rival player, the rest of his team lined up behind him, “”waiting like they had bets or something,”” Abel said.

    “”It kind of took me a long time to say yes, because I really didn’t want to – I was kind of tired and he had a really good game, so I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I really want to ruin his day,’ “” Abel said. “”I ended up beating him, and all his friends were like ‘Oh, yeah, you won me 20 bucks!’ “”

    Then last fall, Arizona had a recruit in town. Lopez had heard about Abel’s race in high school, and told the story to the recruit.

    Abel said the head coach went on and on about how fast Abel was to the recruit, encouraging a race.

    Eventually, he was convinced.

    “”I was in jeans; the other guy had shorts on. It was just real casual,”” Abel said. “”And he smoked me by like five feet. He just blew me out of the water.””

    Abel didn’t hear the end of it for the longest time. That is, until the schedule got underway.

    With 21 stolen bases on 22 attempts this season, Abel has put the story to rest. He far and away leads the Pacific 10 Conference in steals – Cal’s Jeff Kobernus and Oregon State’s Chris Hopkins have 12, on 18 and 15 attempts, respectively.

    “”They don’t really say anything anymore,”” Abel said coyly of his teammates. “”They can’t really talk to me about stealing bags.””

    Baserunning is a teaching point Arizona prides itself on, with daily stations in practice, but Lopez said Abel’s foundation coming into camp was already solid.

    “”I’m not taking any credit – nobody should take credit – he walked into this program with a real good knowledge of how to run the bases,”” Lopez said. “”It’s kind of just blossomed.””

    Traditionally, left-handed pitchers are more difficult to steal off of, because their pick-off moves are more polished. They don’t have to throw across their body and can also make their move appear as part of their normal windup.

    But Lopez said he thinks Abel likes it best when he’s given a steal sign and a southpaw’s on the mound.

    “”At least in this dugout, I watch his body language, and there’s been a couple times where he doesn’t even budge on a left-hander. A left-hander steps off, and he’s just like ‘OK, hurry up. Let’s go,’ “” Lopez said, imitating Abel in a base-running position.

    It’s an attitude Abel’s taken through his whole transition to college.

    “”He has that attitude like ‘I don’t care. I’m going to go out and do what I do and just play the way I’ve always played,’ “” Sedbrook said.

    “”He looks real good as a freshman. He’s poised. The way he carries himself on the field and off the field is something to look at.””

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