OMAHA, Neb. — In the years to come, as Arizona’s 10-0 run through the 2012 postseason becomes bigger than life, stories passed from generation to generation will make the Wildcats 10-0 streak seem like 100-0.
Arizona won ’em all, a post-season march through Omaha that matched the school’s matchless national championships of 1976, 1980 and 1986 and, depending on who’s telling the story, maybe it surpassed ’em all.
The Wildcats outscored their opposition 88-28 in a perfect postseason, including 27-8 at the College World Series. It had almost no numerical resemblance to those national titles won by Jerry Kindall’s teams because, if you recall, those champions of yesteryear were endearingly known as the “Cardiac Cats.”
Yet if you followed Arizona’s four-game sweep at Ameritrade Park, either watching on ESPN or sitting through the humidity in downtown Omaha, you’ll remember the tension as much as the celebratory fireworks and right-fielder Robert Refsnyder cradling the championship trophy after the final out in the final game of an unforgettable season.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Refsnyder, the Most Outstanding Player in the 2012 World Series. “We won every game, but it just seemed like such a struggle. It made me understand how good you have to be to get this trophy.”
Arizona won 4-1. It seemed like 4-3. Or closer.
It won because UA coach Andy Lopez made two career decisions, bold and productive decisions that will accompany him into the College Baseball Hall of Fame some day.
Lopez started sophomore pitcher James Farris instead of All-American Kurt Heyer, and he did not pinch-hit for defensive replacement Brandon Dixon, who won the game with a double in the ninth inning.
In the coaching boxscore, Lopez was 2 for 2.
Arizona reached the championship game because its core group of five juniors — Refsnyder, Heyer, Joey Rickard, Alex Mejia and Seth Mejias-Brean — were as good as any group of five players in Arizona’s long and bountiful baseball history.
But it won Monday because Dixon and Farris delivered in the biggest game of their lives, and the most important game at the UA in 26 seasons. Dixon started one game a year ago. Farris pitched one inning. So don’t say this team was ready-made to win the College World Series.
“I saw Coach Lopez at the hotel last night and he told me, ‘You’ve got the ball,’ ” said Farris, who had not pitched for 22 days. “I was nervous at the beginning, but I turned off my phone, stayed in my hotel room all day and got myself mentally prepared. I just pounded the (strike) zone. I loved being in that moment.”
Lopez’s faith in Farris was made easier because he had, if necessary, Game 3 and Heyer in reserve, but c’mon, Farris pitched so little last year that he considered transferring. But his options were limited. He had never been recruited by any other school.
And there he was, dueling successfully with South Carolina ace Michael Roth, perhaps the most accomplished pitcher in College World Series history, pitch for pitch.
“James was matched up against a legend,” said Lopez. “But he gave us inning after inning after inning after inning. I was happy, happy happy.”
In the ninth, with a 1-1 tie, Lopez decided he would pinch-hit for Dixon, a defensive replacement from Southern California who chose Arizona over an offer from Cal-Riverside, of all teams.
Dixon’s double to left won the game.
“I really wanted to hit in that situation,” Dixon said. “I didn’t know what they had in mind, but I wasn’t going to look in the dugout for a pinch hitter.”
Lopez waffled briefly, but stuck with Dixon when encouraged to do so by assistant coach Matt Siegel.
Again, the Wildcats seemed to be charmed. Everything they did since beating Arizona State and winning a piece of the Pac-12 title on the final day of the regular season, in the bottom of the ninth, every move they made, seemed to work. Isn’t that how you win a national championship?
In the fifth inning, trailing 1-0, South Carolina’s Roth leaned against the dugout railing and told a Gamecock teammate what almost everyone at TD Ameritrade Park was thinking:
“I said, ‘This is what Florida must’ve felt like last year in the championship game,’ ” said Roth, who was part of South Carolina’s 2010 and 2011 national titles. “When we beat Florida, we were making all the plays. We did everything right. Tonight — this week — that’s what Arizona did. “
After the Gamecocks tied it in the seventh, Refsnyder, a willful player whose toughness attracted the New York Yankees and tempted them into drafting the right fielder in the fifth round, suspected that his teammates might be losing their grasp.
“Robert walked up and down the dugout saying, ‘We’re gonna win this game, we’re gonna win this game,’ ” Lopez remembered. “Even I started to believe him.”
After the game, embracing the NCAA trophy, Refsnyder posed for pictures with UA fans standing behind the first-base dugout. At one point, Heyer leaned in to kiss the trophy. Then Mejia, the UA’s All-America shortstop, gave his teammate and the trophy a hug.
“Oh, baby,” said Mejia. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”