Commentary

Wade, Arizona power past UCLA

Originally Published: June 18, 2012
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- They slid in the back door here, unnoticed among the high seeds, starry-eyed underdogs and usual contingent of Southeastern Conference heavyweights.

Admit it, Arizona was an afterthought at this College World Series.

[+] EnlargeKonner Wade
AP Photo/Eric FrancisKonner Wade threw a complete-game shutout to power Arizona past UCLA 4-0 on Sunday.

Well, if you haven't noticed, take a look. The Wildcats announced their presence on Sunday night as a title contender, topping fellow Pac-12 co-champ UCLA 4-0 at TD Ameritrade Park behind a spectacular showing on the mound from sophomore right-hander Konner Wade and a big fourth inning at the plate.

Coach Andy Lopez's 11th Arizona team owns the inside track to the championship series, getting a three-day break before playing Thursday against UCLA or Florida State.

"So far, so good," Lopez said.

The No. 2-seeded Bruins and third-seeded Seminoles meet Tuesday in an elimination game after FSU stayed alive in Omaha Sunday with a 12-2 win to oust Stony Brook.

In the nightcap, Wade fired a complete game, his fifth and most important of the year, allowing five hits. He struck out four and walked none. Pitched as well as anyone the Bruins saw all season, according to coach John Savage.

The Wildcats scored all four of their runs on five consecutive one-out hits in the fourth inning against UCLA's Nick Vander Tuig.

"We're getting big hits when we have to," Lopez said. "We're making big pitches when we have to. We're playing good baseball. It sounds like a real simple, idiotic cliche, but it's something I teach these guys."

Here's the thing about Arizona: The ingredients are there.

The Wildcats play in a great conference with a strong recruiting base. They moved off campus this year into Hi Corbett Field, a renovated Triple-A park that holds nearly 10,000.

Tucson has the right weather for college baseball, albeit a bit hot and dry. And Arizona has history.

The school has won three national titles and played in 15 College World Series, though more than half of those June trips pre-dated the Nixon administration. Before this year, the Wildcats had made just one CWS appearance since 1986.

Meanwhile, rival Arizona State -- which made its first appearance at the CWS after Arizona had been here seven times -- surpassed the Wildcats in prestige.

ASU has advanced to the final eight of college baseball 22 times, including four visits since 2005. But the Sun Devils are on probation, thanks to violations committed under ex-coach Pat Murphy.

Arizona State was banned from postseason play this year. Scholarship limitations and other sanctions persist.

Didn't notice, Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said with a wink outside the locker room after the Wildcats' latest win.

Yes, the window is open and the stars aligned for Lopez, who won his 400th game at the school on Sunday night.

Count Jerry Kindall among those impressed. The former Arizona coach remains an ardent supporter of the program.

[+] EnlargeAndy Lopez
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireSunday night marked win No. 400 for Arizona coach Andy Lopez, who took over the Wildcats' program in 2002.

"This could be a real launching time for them as a multi-year contender," Kindall said Sunday by phone from his home in Tucson as he watched the UCLA game after spending Friday and Saturday in Omaha.

He's the gold standard of Wildcats baseball, with national titles on his belt from 1976, 1980 and 1986. But that's an era ago. Two eras, in fact, as former Kindall assistant Jerry Stitt failed to finish higher than fourth in the league in five years after taking over the program following the legend's 1996 retirement.

Kindall said he opposed the move to Hi Corbett before this season. The decision allowed Arizona baseball to grow and host postseason play, which hadn't occurred, before this year, since 1992.

Incidentally, in that 1992 regional, Arizona went 0-2. Pepperdine emerged and advanced to the CWS, where it won the program's lone national title. The Waves' coach? Lopez.

Lopez, in fact, said he has noticed similarities between that Pepperdine run and Arizona's 7-0 start to this postseason. He told his team after a May 6 loss to Oregon that it needed to win every weekend left on the schedule to host.

The Wildcats listened. They're 15-2 since.

"You've gotta host to get to Omaha," Byrne said. "Now this team has gotten the attention of fans in the state of Arizona. And nationally."

Kindall believes, too.

"It was the right thing to do," he said Sunday of the stadium shift.

The change in venue and increased exposure from this CWS success will help Lopez in his bid to replace five Wildcats selected in the first nine rounds of the big league draft this month.

Star shortstop Alex Mejia, ace pitcher Kurt Heyer, center fielder Joey Rickard, right fielder Robert Refsnyder and third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean are likely gone this summer to pro ball.

First, they've got a run to make at the national title.

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