It's hard not to be excited about Arizona baseball these days.
What a whirlwind the last year has been for coach Andy Lopez and the Wildcats. First, they moved from Frank Sancet Field over to newly renovated Hi Corbett Field, a transition that Lopez says has been beautifully executed. Then, the Wildcats entered the 2012 campaign as one of the nation's highest-ranked teams.
Now, the Wildcats are 18-7 and are coming off a huge Pac-12 road series win over Oregon State. On top of that, they're ranked No. 10 entering this weekend's series against an outstanding Stanford club, ranked No. 2 in the country in the Perfect Game Top 50.
If that's not the recipe for excitement, we're not sure what is.
"We have a chance to take another step forward this weekend," Lopez said. "They're a great team, and as I always tell our guys, we have a chance to go out there and do something special. In addition, we should have very good crowds throughout the weekend."
Though ranked incredibly high, you could say the Wildcats haven't exactly garnered a lot of attention. They captured non-conference series wins over North Dakota State, Eastern Michigan and Harvard. They also captured a series win over Auburn, one that is looking better each week as the Tigers are a big surprise thus far in the SEC race. They started Pac-12 play with a home series win over Washington State. But still, the Wildcats weren't getting the headlines.
Now, after the road series win over Oregon State, and with Stanford coming to town, the Wildcats finally are the talk of the nation. And they hope to please.
"I think it kind of comes with the territory [national attention] of where we are. I've said this prior to when I took over, but the program kind of disappeared in the 90s, so it has been a growing process," Lopez said. "We use that type of deal as motivation, though. It's a good motivator for our young guys."
Extra motivation for the Wildcats could spell trouble for Stanford and other opposing teams the rest of the season. This Wildcats club may have some holes, but those holes certainly aren't present on the offensive side of things, where they're hitting an impressive .322, which ranks 12th on the national stage.
"A lot of these guys have been together since their freshman campaigns, and they're doing a great job of getting after it," Lopez said. "They compete with every pitch, and honestly, it has been a very fun group to work with."
Outfielders Robert Refsnyder (.398/0/26), Joey Rickard (.340/0/13) and Johnny Field (.315/0/15) have been very productive this season, while third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean has also been solid, hitting .365 with 28 RBIs.
Shortstop Alex Mejia has been the biggest surprise for the Wildcats. Projected to bat eighth in the lineup before the spring, the talented infielder has since moved all the way up to third in the batting order, thanks to a .392 average, a team-leading three home runs, 19 RBIs and a respectable .404 on-base percentage.
"Alex is really doing a marvelous job right now," he said. "He has always been pretty good defensively at shortstop, but now his offensive approach really has improved."
The offensive lineup isn't the only unit that has exceeded Lopez's expectations so far this spring -- the weekend rotation also joins the list.
Prior to the season, Lopez was genuinely concerned about the weekend rotation outside of right-handed pitcher Kurt Heyer. But so far, all three starters have been good with Konner Wade and James Farris joining Heyer in the rotation.
Heyer continues to throw well and has a 2.09 ERA in 43 innings. He also has struck out 40 and walked seven, while his stuff has been good, sitting at 89-90 with his fastball, while also consistently touching some 91s and 92s at times.
Meanwhile, sophomore right-handers Wade and Farris also are giving Lopez good results. Farris has a 4.10 ERA in 37 1/3 innings of work. Stuff-wise, Farris is 87-88 with his fastball early in games, but drops down to 85-86 in the middle innings with good location. He also throws good breaking balls, with his changeup having a lot of bite. Wade has a 3.80 ERA in 45 innings of work. Stuff-wise, he has been 88-90 with the fastball, while also throwing a slurve and a changeup that has become a plus pitch.
Overall, Lopez is very pleased with the rotation moving forward.
"Heyer is really making a lot of scouts think long and hard about him, while Farris isn't a spectacular guy, but goes out there, makes pitches and works hard," he said. "Wade is the biggest thing for this rotation. He worked on a lot of things during the offseason and he now has a lot of movement on his fastball. It has a lot of sink and it's now almost an out pitch."
If there's one area that makes Lopez do a double take, it's the bullpen. Freshman right-handed closer Matthew Troupe has done a tremendous job this season, recording five saves and tallying an outstanding 2.81 ERA in 16 innings of work with a fastball sitting 88-90. Lopez has concerns otherwise.
"We're still looking for more clarity in the bullpen, though, Troupe has done a great job," he said. "I like how Troupe is handling the closer role, but the middle relief still has me concerned. I'd like to rear that segment of our team the right direction."
Relievers Lopez believes will step up in due time include Vincent Littleman and Tyler Hale. Littleman has a 4.58 ERA in 17 2/3 innings, while Hale has a 4.50 ERA in 12 innings.
"I think Littleman and Hale will step up. They have postseason experience as starters and we've started to use them in the bullpen this season," he said. "They looked very good in a scrimmage this week, so we feel good about their upside."
Though the offense, starting rotation and closer role looks good heading into the weekend series against red-hot Stanford, there's no doubt that bullpen must rise to the occasion to earn a marquee home series win over Cardinal.
It's also evident those puzzle pieces must come together to reach the College World Series for the first time since 2004.
Still, the reasons to be excited far outweigh the concerns.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org