Shut Out

June 5, 2007

(UA 4, Oral Roberts 3)
(UA 9, New Orleans 8)
(Wichita State 4, UA 3)
(Wichita State 3, UA 0)

So shuts the door.

There was an eerie symmetry Monday night with both the UA baseball and softball teams playing postseason games at the exact same time. And, sadly enough, both teams fell by the same 3-0 score. It was as if the Wildcat offense got sucked into a gender-neutral vortex.

The women have one last chance at redemption but the men are done. Andy Lopezís troops waited until the last game of the weekend to play like an inexperienced team, but when we decided to stink, we went all out.

The Wildcats were shut out for just the third time all year. The two hits were a season low. The 16 strikeouts were a season high. Since we also hit into two double plays, it means we only forced the Shocker fielders to retire a batter nine times the entire game. We probably should have apologized for ignoring them.

The Cat bats went silent in the most important game of the year. It didnít matter that the Wichita State pitching staff had been stretched by an extra game. It didnít matter that their starter in the Monday finale had limped to the end of the season and had gotten shelled by New Orleans on Friday. As we proved against Stanford, Washington State and USC, when we go bad, we out-bad even the worst of pitchers.

The weekend started perfectly fine for the guys in red and blue. Preston Guilmet gave up a couple more runs than normal in game one against Oral Roberts, but freshman closer Jason Stoffel and another one of our patented two-outs-nobody-on rallies picked up the slack. It didnít hurt that we contained the Golden Eaglesí Carter McQuigg, which is my excuse to type the name Carter McQuigg.

Saturdayís game pitted us with surprise winner New Orleans. UNO did its best to Reverse our good fortune, Skip us to the loserís bracket and make us Draw Four another game. But Bill Rhinehart went Wild with a single, double, home run and triple and the Cats got another win. No Arizona player had ever hit for the cycle twice in a career, and suddenly Dollar Bill had a bi-cycle in just a 14-day span.

The only bad part of game two was Brian Jeffries making fun of The A-Team. As hard as it may be to believe, he said they played the theme song at the stadium before the game and, even though it may have been a good omen for the U of A it was still a bad song and bad show. I pity the fool who donít appreciate cheesy Ď80s TV!

So there we sat alone in the winnerís bracket at 2-0, needing just one win in two days to advance. Sundayís game was a close battle in which neither team led for longer than half an inning. We came from behind to tie the game twice but couldnít push across that go-ahead run.

Some might be wondering why we didnít go back to Stoffel late in the game. The problem is youíre really in a bad spot as the visiting team. You could bring Jason in and he could throw four shutout innings, but if you donít score youíre just wearing him out. I guarantee Coach Lopez wouldíve immediately brought him in if we had moved in front, but as long as the game stayed tied we couldnít risk burning him in a losing effort. Itís not like Schlereth did poorly either. He only gave up one hit in three innings of work, but the problem was he walked enough people to make that one hit the game-loser.

So there we sat, now facing an elimination game, but still in good shape. Unlike Wichita State we had a fresh starting pitcher ready to go. We had ace Preston lurking for middle-inning work, and we now had a recharged Jason Stoffel ready to continue his dominant ways. But, alas, sometimes it doesnít matter how well you pitch, because zero is never enough to win.

There are those who say itís better to flame out early than to fail so close to the finish line. Iíve said as much in regards to March Madness. This however is not one of those times. Maybe it would have hurt less in the short term if we had lost the one-run games on Friday and Saturday. But this is a necessary pain. It doesnít change the fact that the 2007 season is dead and buried, but itís a pain that only comes from first-hand experience. And itís a painful experience that can harden the core of a championship team.

It was 2005 all over again. Finish second in the Pac-10, play a regional on the road, win the first two games, then get beat back-to-back by the host school to bring the season to an abrupt halt. But the big difference is the 2005 team was loaded with veterans who would soon leave for the pros. Those two losses in Fullerton meant the end of a cycle that gave way to a losing season in 2006. These two losses in Wichita might just be the beginning of a cycle that produces a whole bunch of wins in 2008.

If I may put on my selfish-fan-hat for a moment, I hope it also motivates a couple of our draft-eligible players to strongly consider coming back for another run at this college stuff. Bill Rhinehart and Brad Mills came back for their senior seasons and, sadly, we could not reward them with an extended run. But C.J. Ziegler, Colt Sedbrook, Daniel Schlereth, David Coulon and Eric Berger all have the option of returning to what is suddenly a very experienced club.

I realize itís hard to fault an athlete who is offered a sizable chunk of currency to chase his dream of playing big league sports, especially juniors like Ziegler, Sedbrook and Coulon who have this one opportunity to use returning to school as bargaining leverage. Weíll find out this week if and where all five guys are drafted and then theyíll have a big decision to make. And, remember, once you sign on the dotted line thereís no turning back. Unless, apparently, youíre a two-time-defending national champion basketball coach.

Even with the disappointment of our current two-game losing streak, I can guarantee you I wonít be changing my mind about this:

I canít wait until next year.

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