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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Age just a number for UA baseball

Young sports teams so often ease the pain of a long losing streak or a disappointing season by blaming it on youth and inexperience.

The popular thought is this: If the season was a failure, just label it a rebuilding year, forget about the struggles and focus on the bright future.

But through 22 games, the No. 19 Arizona baseball team — the youngest in the Pacific 10 Conference with 17 freshmen and 23 underclassmen — hasn’t needed to use inexperience as an excuse.

In fact, it has proven that, in a game of statistics, age is only a number.

The new-look Wildcats (18-4) are riding a 13-game winning streak and have emerged as the Pac-10’s most lethal offense, scoring 10 or more runs in six of the last eight games.

And although the youthful Arizona team has veteran mainstays like Bryce Ortega and Rafael Valenzuela to turn to, it has been the freshmen making play after play in pressure-packed situations.

These 18- and 19-year-old kids have a swagger about them that screams “”seasoned veterans”” rather than “”college baseball first-timers.””

“”I told these guys: ‘stick your chest out,”” head coach Andy Lopez said before the season began. “”It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or not, there are guys your age in Afghanistan, so let’s get after it. Let’s go. Let’s play college baseball.'””

The Wildcat freshmen have done exactly that and then some.

In the 11th inning of a tie ballgame against California State University, Fullerton, on March 5, it was freshman third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean who singled home freshman shortstop Alex Mejia to propel the Wildcats to an 8-7 victory.

The Arizona youngsters were at it again Wednesday night against the University of New Mexico.

Rickard tied the game with an RBI single in the seventh, and Mejia drove in the go-ahead run with a bases-loaded, two-RBI single in the bottom of the eighth that led to an eventual 10-4 victory.After dealing with off-the-field issues last season that led him to describe the year as “”a complete nightmare,”” Lopez was eager for a fresh start and showed confidence in this revamped group from day one.

“”They’re going to play this year,”” he said of the freshmen. “”No ifs, ands or buts — they’re playing.””

The simple fact that Lopez penciled in freshman pitcher Kurt Heyer (3-0) as the opening-day starter speaks volumes.

Heyer’s six-inning, 13-strikeout performance in his first collegiate start sent a message to the rest of the youngsters and epitomized how the Wildcats wanted to approach the season.

“”We’re young, but that’s no excuse for us to play young,”” said junior pitcher Daniel Workman before the first official practice on Feb. 1.

Lopez has expressed how much he likes this group all season long, as he praises its work ethic and never-quit attitude seemingly every game.

And junior second baseman Bryce Ortega, who earned All-Pac-10 honors last season at shortstop, echoed Lopez’s praise after Wednesday’s win against New Mexico.

“”I really like this group of guys,”” Ortega said. “”They’re not going to give up. They’re not going to give in.””   

You don’t have to dig deep into the stats to see how big of an impact the freshmen have had this season.

The current team leader in batting average is freshman Robert Refsnyder, whose .475 average is good for second in the Pac-10. The Wildcats’ top RBI man is none other than Rickard, whose 33 RBIs lead the Pac-10.

Rickard is also first on the team in stolen bases (11) and is tied with sophomore Jett Bandy for the team lead in home runs (4).

Of the four freshmen everyday position players, three are hitting over .375. But the hitters haven’t been the only ones playing like experienced vets.

Heyer showed the necessary poise and the dominating stuff in his first start and took the Pac-10 by storm, as he grabbed hold of the Friday-night slot.

He pitched his way into Arizona baseball record books in only one appearance, while earning Pac-10 Player of the Week and “”Louisville Slugger”” National Player of the Week along the way.

After five starts, Heyer is seventh in the Pac-10 in ERA (2.10), third in innings pitched (34.1) and third in strikeouts (43, to only four walks).

To have a freshman come in and solidify himself as a legitimate ace less than a week into the season is symbolic of the way the youngsters have gone about their business this season.

Whether it’s been with the bats, gloves or arms, the Arizona freshmen have already made their presence felt 22 games into the 2010 campaign.

— Mike Schmitz is a business sophomore. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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