Turn The Tied

May 27, 2008

(ASU 13, at UA 6)
(at UA 4, ASU 3 – 11 inn.)
(at UA 7, ASU 4)

We beat ASU at something! Kinda.

Finishing with series wins over the top two teams in the Pac-10 was a great way to end a frustrating regular season. It also sends the BatCats into the tournament with some distinct momentum.

The good news continued when the brackets were released. Once you find out you’re not hosting the best you can hope for is a regional without a dominant team. We got that and more when we were named the #1 seed in the Michigan regional. There can be no complaints about tough draws or bad breaks. This team has been given an excellent opportunity to succeed. Now we just have to win ballgames.

The cliché certainly applies to this UA baseball team: It’s a brand new season. The slate is wiped clean. The 12-12 league record is gone. All the one-run road losses are in the past. Sixty-four teams have a chance to right all their regular season wrongs.

And 48 of the teams – all the 1 through 3 seeds – have a role model. When Oregon State won last year’s championship after starting as the 3-seed in a 4-team regional it reminded everyone that, yes, anything can happen in the playoffs.

The 2007 Beavers could provide additional inspiration for our Cats. OSU’s strength last year? Pitching. Well, that and rapping. Maybe we just have to pretend we won it all last year, and we can suddenly get crazy hot this year.

To further the Oregon State parallel, the Beavers were lined up to face the #1 overall seed last year (Vanderbilt) just like Arizona is this year (Miami). But OSU got upset help (from Michigan no less) so they ended up hosting the super regional and winning two straight to advance to Omaha. The Wildcats’ best friends this weekend are Missouri and Mississippi.

The Cats worst enemy, as we all know, is themselves. Unfortunately all the old foes made an appearance in game 1 of the ASU series. Leaving men on base, committing errors on routine plays, and watching the 2007 Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year get knocked around for the fourth straight start.

It’s an alarming trend that can’t be ignored, and Coach Lopez did address it in his postgame comments. This is a terrible time to have question marks surrounding the front of your pitching rotation but the good news is Guilmet does have one last chance to straighten it out.

Normally when a 1-seed goes into regional play there’s the temptation not to pitch your ace in the opening game against the 4-seed to save him for the (assumed) game against the 2/3 winner. Well, if the Cats stick to their normal rotation they get the best of both worlds. We start our regular Friday guy in the first game and then we have our two hottest starters for games 2 and 3. Plus, in facing a lesser team like Eastern Michigan, maybe Preston can identify what’s been missing and get back to great.

Speaking of our game 1 opponent, since we just played Eastern Michigan last year I’m going to recycle last year’s joke:

How can your school initials be EMU and yet your mascot isn’t the emu? To make matters worse they chose the Eagle which is just like admitting, “Yeah, we know our teams should be named after a large bird but we’re going to wuss out and pick the one with talons.”

Another area where we’re doing a lot of recycling is with the leadoff spot in our batting order. After Fon and Coyle cycled through again without sticking we tried Bryce Ortega up there for the first time. It didn’t go so well with Bryce going 0-for-4 and committing two errors. That led to Friday night’s hero, Rafael Valenzuela, getting the start Saturday afternoon. Because, hey, if you can’t find a solid left fielder, why not try your pinch hitter/backup infielder? Rafael responded with two hits and a nice running catch out in the field, and Ortega added a home run from his familiar 9-hole. Go figure.

The rest of the lineup is set and performing well. Remember our lefty/righty DH combo? Well, check out their final regular season stats:

player – average / slugging / on-base
Baird .323 / .503 / .402
Weldon .323 / .508 / .408

Now that’s balance.

It wasn’t fun watching ASU clinch the outright Pac-10 championship on our field Thursday night but they are an imposing team in person. Seeing the Sun Devils up close makes you realize how much they reflect their coach: his personality, his aggressiveness, his pant size….

That first game got out of hand early. Brett Wallace, the portly powerhouse, was halfway to the cycle after two at-bats. Later in the game his home run to left center may have bounced off the Mars Lander. The only good news at that point was you knew he wasn’t going to leg out a triple.

After being reminded how hard it is to catch up when you let them score in every single inning, we had the Pat Murphy moment of the weekend: ASU scored its 13th run on a straight steal of home with a 6-run lead in the 8th inning. The black hat still fits.

Games 2 and 3 were much more to our liking. The 11-inning affair featured real baseball maneuvering with bullpen moves and pinch-hitting counter moves. How did Murphy know to save his ace starter Mike Leake so he could pitch the final five innings of the game? Maybe he is the Devil.

The interesting thing is if ASU had used its ace starter against our ace starter we would’ve lost. But by using him in relief Leake ended up matched up with our true ace, the three-headed flame-throwing monster that is our bullpen, and the Cats prevailed.

Game 3 was a beautiful shutout until one out in the 9th inning. They just don’t make it easy do they? Big thanks to one-third of the monster for coming in and quickly driving a stake through heart of the beast.

So where was I? That’s right: We beat ASU at something! Of course, even our “win” ends up just being a 2-2 season series split thanks to that one-run road loss in March. But, just like a certain football game in 1987, sometimes a tie is really a win.

As we focus our attention back on the baseball tournament, it’s worth noting that ASU ended the season with a road record of 8-8 (6-6 in the Pac-10). Granted, they are guaranteed home games all the way to the College World Series, but last I checked Omaha wasn’t a suburb of Phoenix so that might be a problem.

However, we’ll deal with the Devils the next time we see them. It would be quite the story if it happened again in 2008.

There wouldn’t beat any ties then.

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