HANSEN

Greg Hansen: When times get tough, Cats get 'comfortable'

2012-05-28T00:00:00Z 2012-12-04T14:00:59Z Greg Hansen: When times get tough, Cats get 'comfortable'Greg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 28, 2012 12:00 am  • 

The Pac-12 championship game went on and on and on. It went on for three hours and 50 minutes. Although Arizona never trailed, the consequences and the theatrics were such that it seemed like the Wildcats never led.

The Sun Devils had so much positive energy that when relief pitcher Robert Ravago, a Pueblo High grad, snuffed out an Arizona rally in the eighth inning, he glared into the UA dugout, postured, and shouted something toward the dugout.

"I saw that," said UA leadoff hitter Joey Rickard. "We all saw that."

This was the Pac-12 title slipping away. The game was tied at 7 and yet a small pocket of ASU fans behind the third base dugout were making as much or more noise than the worried UA fans among the 2,927 at Hi Corbett Field.

At another time and perhaps at another ballpark, the UA might've been intimidated by Ravago and by the Pac-12's best baseball program of the last decade.

But before the Territorial Cup series and during much of this blessed season, UA coach Andy Lopez stepped to the pulpit and told his depth-challenged team that it had earned an identity as a team that didn't yield to the pressure.

"You have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable," said Lopez. "When you're not comfortable with the uncomfortable, that's when you fail a lot."

In this game and in this setting, against ASU - so close but yet so far - failure was unthinkable to a school that has won but three Pac-12 baseball championships in 33 seasons.

How often do you get an opportunity like this? Once a decade? In the end, his team was comfortable when the pressure was the greatest.

"I couldn't wait to hit in the ninth," said Rickard. The problem was: would he? Rickard was due up behind a sub and two freshmen, Brandon Dixon, Riley Moore and Trent Gilbert.

"They had a good arm out there," said Rickard. "That guy is good."

In the UA dugout, knowing that ASU would have a notable edge in pitching in extra innings, Lopez pulled out a 3x5 index card and went batter by batter through the lineup.

He saw that Rickard would be hitting fourth and Pac-12 batting champion Johnny Field would follow.

"I knew if we could get that far, we had a chance," said Lopez. Maybe he wasn't as calm as he sounded 20 minutes after Arizona beat the Sun Devils 8-7 and won a share of the league championship. But at 58, Lopez has done his best to eliminate unnecessary worrying. His blood pressure results have improved so much in his 11 UA seasons that he went to the bottom of the ninth without feeling faint. Maybe even comfortable.

In his early years as a coach, making a name for himself as a small-college coach in Southern California, Lopez didn't cope well with tension. He worried about everything.

"When I was young it killed me," he said. He fretted so much that he got an older person's disease, shingles, a disorder that leads to a painful rash, blisters and a burning sensation.

On Sunday, Lopez might've felt a burning sensation, but there was no pain. He didn't know - and didn't ask - how the other contenders, Oregon and UCLA, were doing. His singular focus was on scoring a run and avoiding extra innings.

Moore walked and, with two out, Rickard singled. Field, hitting .379, stepped to the plate. He relished the situation.

"Ravago struck me out earlier this year," said Field. "But I really wanted to get up there."

He singled to left. Arizona won its fourth Pac-12 title in 34 years.

There was no champagne but the on-field celebration was no less joyful.

In the perspective of UA baseball, a program with three national championships and 15 College World Series appearances, winning the 2012 Pac-12 title isn't earth-shaking. But when you think of the post-Jerry Kindall years, the diminishing community support and the rise of UA softball as this city's No. 1 spring sport, it takes on far larger significance.

The Wildcats drew 86,132 fans at Hi Corbett this year, a school record. They became relevant again.

What's more, Arizona will play host to an NCAA regional for only the third time in 30 years. That's nothing to ASU, which has played host to nine NCAA regionals and four super regionals this century. But remember this: When Lopez arrived in Tucson, in 2001, Arizona had made to just one post-season appearance in eight years.

In 11 seasons, he has revived the school's baseball tradition and even though he pays no attention to outside variables, he understands the meaning of beating ASU in the bottom of the ninth - twice in 44 hours - winning the Pac-12 title and reaching the postseason for the eighth time.

"It's a monster," he said.

And this monster is fact, not fiction.

By the numbers

2,927

Sunday's attendance at Hi Corbett Field.

14,055

Three-day attendance total for Arizona's rivalry series with Arizona State. The Wildcats had $98,500 in ticket revenue over the weekend, nearly $30,000 more than it made in all home games combined last season at Kindall/Sancet Stadium

86,132

Arizona's regular-season attendance this year, 49,720 more than last year.

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