June 11, 2007

Iím about tired of writing these season-ending recaps when so many other teams are still playing.

So letís start with some happy news instead. I canít comment on the softball teamís eighth national championship without exposing myself as the bandwagon fan that I am, but itís kind of hard to ignore dominance. I watched all the postseason games that were on TV and this was a very enjoyable team to follow.

For the second straight year the best softball pitcher in the land was a left-handed giant wearing some shade of orange, and for the second straight year the UA climbed the beanstalk and made off with the gold instead.

From Caitlin Lowe introducing her face to the outfield wall in the first inning of the super regionals, to Taryne Mowatt giving up nine inches to her championship series pitching counterpart and posting zero after zero after zero, it was a group of women who made you proud to be a Wildcat.

The baseball team did make some strides that shouldnít be overlooked after the disappointing end to the season. Last year we finished fourth in the Pac-10 and missed the playoffs. We were fourth in the conference in hitting and runs scored last year, but dead last in team ERA. This yearís team improved all the way to second in pitching and - surprisingly enough - second in hitting (although thatís a bit misleading as four teams were bunched together a long ways behind ASUís offensive juggernaut).

Next year a main goal will be finishing strong. We ended up losing four of our last five Pac-10 series after going 8-1 in our first nine league games. Another big goal will be to play better against the strong, and then the weak. We ended up losing both series to our competitors in the top third of the league (ASU and UCLA), we dominated the middle third of the conference (Cal, Washington, OSU) to the tune of a 9-0 record, but we really dropped the ball against the bottom third with a 4-5 mark against WSU, USC and Stanford.

Even the Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year has room for improvement. Itís hard to knock a guy who went 12-2 with a 1.87 ERA, but itís worth noting that both of Prestonís losses came against the first place team in the conference. He lost to UCLA when they were still on top of the standings, and then to ASU who ended up with the championship. If weíre going to be the best weíll need our best to be his best against the best.

Even though our run is done we can still be proud of our geographical brethren. Remember how we talked about the Confederate States of Baseball hogging all the regionals while the West gets stuck with just two or three a year? Well, the flip side of that is the West still wins anyway. For the fifth consecutive year, there will be at least two western squads in the eight-team College World Series field. This year three teams have already clinched (ASU, Irvine and Fullerton) and Oregon State is one home win away from making it an even 50%. Even more interesting, the South only won three spots in this yearís CWS. Ulysses S. Grant would be proud.

There are quite a few Cinderella stories developing on the national level. The Louisville Cardinals made it to Omaha for the first time even though they finished third in the Big East. The Titans of Cal State Fullerton are heading back to the CWS after posting a fifth place finish (with a losing conference record) in the Big West. Oregon State and its sixth place Pac-10 record (and another losing record) are one win away from getting a chance to defend their title. Most of all, when the Big West gets as many teams to the College World Series as the ACC and SEC combined you have to giggle just a bit.

Arizonaís odds of getting back to Omaha may have actually improved after the Major League Baseball draft this past week. As is often the case, potential was valued higher than actual performance on the field, at least as far as UA players were concerned. The first Wildcat selected, Daniel Schlereth, missed a good chunk of the year due to the injury, and the second Cat taken, Eric Berger, was hurt and missed the entire year. Oh to be able to throw a baseball really fast with my left arm.

What was certainly a disappointing day for the three UA juniors may well turn into a big gain for the Wildcat baseball program. C.J. Ziegler, Colt Sedbrook, and David Coulon all went toward the end of the draft which could drive them all back to school to improve their stock. Donít forget, Bill Rhinehart was passed over entirely as a junior before lighting it up his senior year and jumping all the way into the 11th round.

All drafted players have until August 15 to sign a pro contract or return to school so we have a couple more months before weíll know for sure what the 2008 roster looks like, but I have a feeling itís going to look very, very good.

Whatever happens weíre set at the front of the rotation and the back of the bullpen with Preston Guilmet and Jason Stoffel. Brad Glenn and T.J. Steele look ready to anchor the middle of the lineup with Jon Gaston as another solid bat. Hereís a list of needs going into next season:

-Two starting pitchers. We lost five series in 2007 and three of them were the result of dropping two straight games after Guilmet won game one. We have to get Superman a couple sidekicks. Will Berger come back? Can he get back to where he was before the injury? Can juniors-to-be Mike Colla and/or Ryan Perry make a Preston-like jump and fill out the rotation?

-Left-handed power. With Dollar Bill Rhinehart closing up his cycle shop we need someone to balance out a righty-heavy lineup. Can Gaston continue developing and lay claim to a middle-of-the-order spot? Can Berger also return as a doubles-hitting DH? Will this yearís top hitting recruits be able to say no to the pro money?

-A true lead-off man. It doesnít matter if you run like the wind if youíre sitting in the dugout. Diallo Fon had a .300 batting average and .400 on-base percentage but he struck out over a quarter of the time. Hunter Pace made a lot of contact but he only drew three walks in 48 plate appearances. Can one of them consistently set the table for the big bashers?

-Sophomore success. The lineup could go from decent to deadly if Dwight Childs and Robert Abel make the typical freshman-to-sophomore leaps in production at the plate. We had a very nice two-through-seven lineup this past year, but the eight and nine holes were, well, holes.

In the grand scheme of things, thatís not a long list. It shows we have the stars and on-the-verge-of-stars in place to play a little bit longer next year.

Maybe even long enough to delay the season-ending recap for a couple very happy weeks.

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