When Andy Lopez left Hi Corbett Field after his team’s 7-0 loss to Arizona State last Saturday, he did something he had never done in his 37 years of coaching.
He looked ahead.
Even with 12 games left on the schedule, including a three-game series against Oregon starting tonight, the longtime UA coach is thinking about 2015. This year’s Wildcats are 18-25 overall, 7-14 in conference play and out of postseason contention.
“If we win two out of three last weekend, I’m probably still saying, ‘Hey, you never know,’ ” Lopez said. “Once we lost the game on Saturday, I thought, ‘Dang, this one is probably in the bag now.’
“It’s time to start moving forward.”
Lopez and his assistants huddled for two hours Wednesday morning to try to figure out how you go from national champions to out of contention in April in just two seasons. The staff will meet every Wednesday morning for the rest of the season to try to come up with those answers.
They’ll start by looking at two major areas: recruiting and development.
“Where have we failed in terms of development and where have we failed in recruiting?” Lopez said. “I take full responsibility for it. I’ll wear this one for the rest of my life. Now, as quick as I say that, I like the challenge.
“We have to fix this thing.”
So how do the Wildcats right their wrongs? Here are two ways.
1. Find some pitching. Arizona has been searching for a Friday night starter since Kurt Heyer left after the 2012 season. Konner Wade couldn’t do the job last season and James Farris hasn’t fared much better this spring.
Farris, a senior, is 1-4 with a 5.17 ERA in seven Pac-12 starts this season. The Wildcats have lost six straight conference series openers.
So what’s the answer? Lopez will do something this summer he hasn’t done a lot during his time at Arizona — scour the junior college ranks.
“We obviously need to do something on the mound. That’s not a red flag; it’s a banner,” Lopez said. “We need a couple of front-line arms. We may go a different route than we have before, because we need them right now. We’re going to spend the entire summer looking for two JC guys who can come in and pitch right away.”
Lopez’s hope is to team those two front-line starters with Cody Hamlin, who should return next season and is currently 5-3 with a 2.94 ERA.
There’s also another option. Bobby Dalbec, who has played first base and designated hitter and served as the team’s closer this season, could move into the rotation. The freshman has a 1.03 ERA in 26ª innings this season and has been almost as good in Pac-12 play with a 1.10 ERA.
But even with his success, Dalbec doesn’t love pitching all that much.
“If we really need a guy to be a starter, I’d obviously do it,” Dalbec said. “But I like my future after Arizona to be with the bat. I’m not real big on pitching. I do it and compete, but I prefer to be in the box.”
2. Play the young guys. Lopez and the Wildcats aren’t waving the white flag for the rest of this season, but the coach does want to evaluate what he has coming back next season.
So expect to see more of freshmen like Michael Hoard, Willie Calhoun and Kenny Meimerstorf and less of some veterans on the roster.
“We need to do a very thorough job of evaluation,” Lopez said. “I like a lot of these freshmen and sophomores. I really do. Everybody has opinions and that’s the beauty of life, but I really like Bobby Dalbec, Michael Hoard, Kenny Meimerstorf, Zach Gibbons, Scott Kingery, Kevin Newman and Cody Hamlin. I really like them a lot. We have some pieces.”
Hoard, a Salpointe Catholic High School product, has 43 at-bats this season and just 21 in Pac-12 play. That will change starting this weekend against the Ducks. Lopez said Hoard, a left-handed hitter, will start against all righties.
Oregon is expected to start right-handers on Saturday and Sunday.
“We need to get him in there,” Lopez said of Hoard, who went 2 for 3 with two RBIs in his last start. “He’s a great young man. His work ethic is off the charts. His defense needs some work and I think he would tell you that. But we have to get him some at-bats and we’re going to start doing that.”
Calhoun and Meimerstorf have both struggled with consistency this season, but will still get their fair share of at-bats during the final 12 games. Calhoun is batting .224 and Meimerstorf is at .222, but both have shown flashes of promise and have combined for 58 starts.
“Every team says they are going to be good next year, but I truly believe we are going to be,” said Dalbec, who will spend the summer playing for the Orleans Firebirds of the collegiate Cape Cod League. “The sophomores are going to be more mature and we have a really good class coming in.”