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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

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Rodney Haas / Arizona Daily Wildcat
Rodney Haas
Rodney Haas / Arizona Daily Wildcat

Arizona baseball head coach Andy Lopez raised some eyebrows when he announced that the player he once deemed the best defensive shortstop he’d ever coached would be moving to second base for a freshman to come in and replace him.

But after 25 games, junior second baseman Bryce Ortega and freshman shortstop Alex Mejia are making Lopez look extremely good for making the once-controversial move.

No. 18 Arizona (20-5, 2-1 Pacific 10) leads the Pac-10 Conference in defensive double plays, with the dynamic duo up the middle as the number one reason why.

“”They’ve been doing it all year long,”” Lopez said of Ortega and Mejia double-play prowess. “”They’re very, very good up the middle with each other. They have a good feel for what they’re doing.””

An age-old saying around the diamond is “”you can never assume the double play,”” but Ortega and Mejia are quickly changing that.

When a slow roller is hit toward short, Mejia can be seen turning an infield hit into a spectacular barehanded play.

If a rocket is sent to the right side of the infield that has single written all over it, more often than not, Ortega is the one shifting to his left to ultimately make a diving play, only to hop to his feet and put the throw on the money to first just in time to beat the runner.

But the transition to become the best up-the-middle duo in the Pac-10 didn’t come as easily as the numbers may suggest.

Ortega started all 54 games at shortstop last year, where he emerged as a top glove in the Pac-10, earning First Team All-Pac-10 honors for his work.

After walking on his freshman year, Ortega established himself in the field, so when Lopez asked him to attempt a move to second, the Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., native was a bit surprised.

“”I was kind of skeptical at first because I know that I can play shortstop and I’ve had more experience than (Mejia),”” Ortega said of making the move to second base. “”But (Lopez) said … it would make our team better, and I was totally down for that.””

Both players tried out second base and shortstop in the fall, and Ortega proved to be the better fit at second. The junior, who started 107 of 108 games at shortstop prior to the 2010 season, swallowed his pride to help out the youngest team in the conference.

“”Bryce is a very good second baseman and has obviously been our shortstop the last two years, but he was good enough to move over,”” Lopez said. “”It says a lot for a junior. He came over, and it’s really helped us.””

Since the move, Ortega has yet to make an error through 24 games at second base.

“”I try to take the same mentality that I take at shortstop because there’s a lot that goes on at shortstop that goes on at second base,”” Ortega said. “”I think it was a really good move for us, and I’m really happy about it actually.””

On the other side of the infield, the 19-year-old Mejia has come out since opening day and claimed the shortstop job with confidence. You can always hear him talking in the field, encouraging his teammates and carrying himself with a demeanor well beyond his years.

But the Slymar, Calif., native’s vocal nature isn’t something that he makes a conscious effort at.

“”I just kind of grew up that way, just making sure everyone knows where to be and just being real loud,”” Mejia said. “”It doesn’t hurt to be loud and give pitchers support. I don’t really look at it as taking charge; it’s just being myself.””

Through 25 games, Ortega and Mejia are No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the Pac-10 in assists. Ortega is also second in fielding double plays, while Mejia sits one spot behind him in third.

Lopez should be credited for seeing what moves needed to be made to help the team most, but the majority of the kudos should go to Ortega. The fact that one of the conference’s best shortstops for two consecutive seasons would leave the position in which he’s made his mark for an unknown freshman to come in and take over says a lot about his character.

And then add in that he still remains errorless and has made it look like he’s been playing second base all of his life, and Ortega’s feat becomes that much more impressive.

“”I feel a little honored more than anything,”” Mejia said of Ortega moving positions for him. “”Bryce (Ortega) really is good, he really is good defensively. You can see that at second base. Ortega is a great, great guy. His work ethic is great. It was just kind of an honor to take over after that.””

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