If Andy Lopez ever has to have heart surgery again, he’s not letting his doctor schedule it.
“I’m going to design it to have it in the summer; I’m not going to have it in the fall again,” Lopez joked this week.
Lopez and his Arizona club will play their 20th game of the season tonight when they open Pac-12 play against the Washington State Cougars at Hi Corbett Field at 6 p.m. Even though Lopez has been with his squad for the first 19 games and since the beginning of practice in January, he’s still getting to know his personnel.
The veteran coach missed the majority of fall practice after undergoing quadruple bypass surgery in October. This week, Lopez acknowledged that not being with the Wildcats could have hurt the development of the team.
“Missing the fall has really been a challenging experience for me,” Lopez said. “I felt like a Martian dropped off from Mars into a program on January 15th.”
The kinks finally seem to be working themselves out. After losing five straight to Seton Hall and Long Beach State, the Wildcats have gone 4-2 over their last six games to improve to 10-9.
And now the UA gets to hit the reset button with conference play and get a fresh start.
“As I told them, ‘Your record is 0-0 right now,’” Lopez said. “It’s pretty simple. If we play good baseball, we usually win or are into it until the very end. If we don’t play good baseball, it doesn’t matter. The problem is we’ve had a propensity to play bad baseball coming out of the gate.”
Here are three keys to a successful Pac-12 season:
1. Overcome adversity. The Wildcats have had plenty of hardships to deal with so far this season.
Junior pitcher Mat Troupe, who was projected to be the team’s Saturday starter after serving as the closer the past two seasons, underwent Tommy John surgery last week and will miss the rest of the season.
Fellow junior Joe Maggi, the team’s leading hitter in conference play last season, was suspended this week for violating team rules. He was reinstated Thursday and will be available to play this weekend.
Another junior, left-handed pitcher Tyler Crawford, is 1-3 with a 9.78 ERA, and it gets worse: He recently lost 17 pounds in 10 days because of food poisoning.
Crawford was set to be the team’s Sunday starter, but has been moved to the bullpen.
The man who is slated to replace Crawford on Sundays, freshman Austin Schnabel, left Wednesday’s game with tightness in his shoulder. Lopez is optimistic he’ll be able to start this weekend.
“With the way things have started off, we’ve felt the low,” sophomore shortstop Kevin Newman said. “Now we have a chance to get hot and feel the high.”
2. Continue to get solid play from leadoff hitter Scott Kingery. One player who doesn’t need a fresh start is Kingery, the team’s sophomore center fielder.
The Phoenix Mountain Pointe High School product is leading the team with a .441 batting average and has an on-base percentage of .556. He leads the team in runs (23), walks (14) and stolen bases (11) and is tied for the lead in doubles (seven) and hits (30).
“I’m really happy for him and for us,” Lopez said. “I like having a guy like that. He reminds me of a David Eckstein when I had him at Florida. Scott has that surprising power, and right now he’s getting on base and he can run the bases pretty well.”
Kingery has a 10-game hitting streak going into conference play. During that stretch he’s 15-32 with 15 runs and five RBIs.
3. Compete. Following the team’s 11-4 loss to Long Beach State earlier this month — the UA’s fifth straight defeat — Lopez questioned the competitiveness of his squad.
Since then, he said it’s headed in the right direction, and even in losses to Mississippi State and UC Santa Barbara, the Wildcats have played with more fire.
“It’s not where I want it just yet,” Lopez said Wednesday. “We’ll work on it again tomorrow in practice again. I made that statement to our guys today. We’re definitely going in the right direction with the competitive nature.”
Newman said it will be important for the team’s younger players to not be overwhelmed by the talent level of the Pac-12. The shortstop, who is batting .346 with a team-high 20 RBIs, said he struggled to adjust to Pac-12 pitching last season as a freshman.
“I had never seen arms like that before,” Newman said. “All the Friday night guys are potential first-round draft picks.
“So coming in as a freshman, that was the biggest struggle for me. But you have to get over it and play your best baseball.”