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.
Missouri State (20-6): The Bears have one of the nation's elite weekend rotations and are red-hot right now. They've won eight of their last 10 games, and are in the midst of an eight-game winning streaks. The Bears are a legitimate national contender.
Campbell (23-3): There's no doubt the Camels are the hottest team in the land, winners of 18-straight games. However, it'll be interesting to see how they move forward after playing such a weak schedule to start the season. That road series against Liberty in two weekends is circled on the calendar.
New Mexico State (22-8): There have been times in the past where the Aggies weren't legit despite a hot start. But that's not the case this season. Zac Fisher and the Aggies hit the baseball with consistency, while the pitching staff actually has been decent for the most part. NMSU has won 13-straight games.
Baylor (19-7): It wasn't too long ago the Bears appeared to be in some trouble. However, they've since been fantastic in Big 12 play, earning series sweeps over Texas Tech and Kansas. The Bears have won nine of their last 10 games and are in the midst of an eight-game winning streak.
San Diego (21-6): There are few teams around the country more sizzling than the Toreros right now. The Toreros have won eight of their last 10 games, most recently earning an impressive home series sweep over Santa Clara to begin WCC play. Third baseman Kris Bryant is having a monstrous year at the plate.
Alabama (9-16): The Crimson Tide just can't seem to catch a break so far this season. They got off to a bad start and are coming off a home series loss to Ole Miss. The Tide is 3-7 in their last 10 games and heads to Tennessee this weekend for another tough series.
Southeast Missouri State (7-19): SEMO might have one of the nation's elite hitters in third baseman Trenton Moses, but that appears to be all it has. SEMO has dropped nine-straight games and has a dismal 7-19 overall record.
San Diego State (11-15): The Aztecs have shown signs of turning a corner this season. But as usual, they've yet to establish any sort of consistency. The Aztecs are 2-8 in their last 10 games, but should get back in the winning mode this weekend with a home series against Air Force.
Ball State (4-16): The Cardinals have played some tough competition this season, but they're way behind as they continue MAC play. BSU has lost nine of its last 10 games, and has a series coming up this weekend against a solid Kent State club. The Cardinals' woes likely continue this weekend.
James Madison (6-18): Given the fact the Dukes have been so successful throughout the past few years, it's still surprising to me they haven't found a way to put things together. JMU remains in trouble, losing nine of its last 10 games with just six overall wins.
FIVE GREAT PITCHING MATCHUPS
Arizona RHP Kurt Heyer vs. Stanford RHP Mark Appel
There are some other good pitching matchups this weekend, but this one takes the label for the best. Heyer is having a very solid campaign for the Wildcats, sitting pretty with a 2.09 ERA in six starts and 43 innings of work. He also has struck out 40 and walked seven, while teams are hitting him at a .244 clip. Stuff-wise, Heyer has added more zip on his fastball this season. Though he typically sits 88-90 with his fastball, he has topped out at 92 at times. Meanwhile, Stanford has one of the nation's elite prospect in Appel. Appel has taken a step forward this spring with more dominant stuff. He has started five games and has a 2.92 ERA in 40 innings. He has struck out 47 and walked 12, while teams are hitting .164 against him. Appel has sat in the mid 90s with his fastball this spring, getting as high as 97.
N.C. State RHP Carlos Rodon vs. Virginia RHP Branden Kline
The Wolfpack was on cloud nine when Rodon decided to go to college. You're seeing why they were so excited so far this spring. The freshman has pitched like anything but a freshman. Rodon has been fantastic, making six starts and tallying a 1.30 ERA in 41 2/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 47 and walked 12, while teams are hitting him at a low .216 clip. Stuff-wise, Rodon has a dominant fastball that steadily sits in the 92-95 range, sometimes reaching as high as 97. Meanwhile, Kline also has put together a solid campaign. The righty is 4-2 with a 3.10 ERA in 40 2/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 35 and walked 14, while teams are hitting him at a .236 clip. Kline works with a fastball that sits in the low 90s, while his 82-84 slider is absolutely sick when he's rolling.
Arkansas RHP Ryne Stanek vs. LSU RHP Ryan Eades
One look at the weekend rotations for the Razorbacks and Tigers this weekend, and you'd assume the premier matchup would be between Kevin Gausman and DJ Baxendale. Not exactly, not at this point in the season. Arkansas right-hander Ryne Stanek has been the Hogs' best starting pitcher so far this season, sitting pretty with a 6-0 record and 1.25 ERA in 36 innings of work. He also has struck out 31 and walked 13, while teams are hitting him at a .202 clip. Stanek was up to 95-96 at the Houston College Classic earlier this season, and showed much better command of his off speed stuff, particularly his changeup and curveball. Meanwhile, Eades flourished in summer action and hasn't disappointed this spring. The righty is 4-1 with a 2.04 ERA in 39 2/3 innings. He also has struck out 31 and walked eight, while teams are hitting him at a .248 clip. Stuff-wise, Eades has the ability to get to 94-95 with his fastball, while his breaking pitches, particularly his changeup, are very solid pitches.
Florida RHP Hudson Randall vs. Mississippi RHP Bobby Wahl
The Gators showed last weekend against South Carolina they're more than capable of rebounding against a very good team after losing the first game of the series. Still, the Rebels need to find a way to get up on UF early. UF right-handed pitcher Hudson Randall is all about command and has a 3.41 ERA in 37 innings of work. He also has struck out 34 and walked two, while teams are hitting him at a .248 clip. Randall's fastball sits 87-89, occasionally bumping 90, while he has an 83-84 slider and a 80-81 changeup. Meanwhile, Wahl has blossomed as an elite pitcher and prospect this season, sitting pretty with a 2.36 ERA in 34 1/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 42 and walked 12, while teams are hitting .222 off him. Wahl can sit 93-96 with his fastball, and can touch 97. He also has a power curveball and a good changeup.
North Carolina LHP Kent Emanuel vs. Wake Forest LHP Tim Cooney
The Tar Heels have had an outstanding campaign thus far, and it's no surprise Emanuel is having a productive sophomore campaign. The talented left-hander is 5-1 with a 1.38 ERA in 39 innings of work. He also has struck out 34 and walked seven, while teams are hitting him at a .235 clip. Additionally, Emanuel has good stuff. He's not an overpowering guy with his fastball, but has outstanding pitchability. He does a tremendous job of hitting his spots. Meanwhile, Cooney has been pretty good this season, but his ERA took a hit last weekend with a less than stellar performance against Florida State. Cooney is 3-2 with a 4.17 ERA in 36 2/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 41 and walked 21, while teams are hitting him at a .239 clip. Cooney sits 88-91 with his fastball, but has been clocked a little higher at times. He also has a relatively easy delivery.
TEN SERIES TO WATCH
No. 1 Florida at No. 20 Mississippi: The Gators are having a special campaign and took a big step forward last weekend, taking two of three on the road from South Carolina, a team that previously had been a nemesis for UF. Now, the Gators once again hit the road to face an Ole Miss club looking for a marquee series win. UF once again will be without starting pitcher Karsten Whitson, but look for them to not skip a beat with Jonathon Crawford filling in nicely for Whitson ... For Ole Miss, the weekend is a big one, with ace pitcher Bobby Wahl (2.36, 34 1/3 IP) a huge key to its success this weekend. It's also worth noting that second baseman Alex Yarbrough and first baseman Matt Snyder are having big-time campaigns at the plate. It should be a fantastic atmosphere in Oxford, Miss., but will that be enough to pull off an upset?
PG Pick: Florida
No. 2 Stanford at No. 10 Arizona There's not a team more battle-tested at this point in the season than the Cardinal. They've played an incredibly tough schedule, but still have an outstanding record. The big reason for their success so far this season is the consistency of the weekend rotation, particularly right-hander Mark Appel (2.92, 40 IP) and left-hander Brett Mooneyham (2.12, 34 IP). Meanwhile, the Cardinal doesn't have a great offensive lineup, but is productive enough with a .309 average ... As for the Wildcats, right-handed ace pitcher Kurt Heyer is having a solid campaign, while freshman reliever Matt Troupe has provided a boost out of the bullpen. The Wildcats are most dangerous at the plate, where they have an outstanding .322 batting average with Robert Refsnyder (.398/0/26) and Alex Mejia (.392/3/19) leading the way.
PG Pick: Stanford
No. 3 Arkansas at No. 18 LSU: This is a huge SEC series for both teams, but even more important for the Tigers, who are looking to bounce back after dropping a tough road series to Auburn last weekend. The Hogs got a rough start from DJ Baxendale (4.15, 30 1/3 IP) against Mississippi State last weekend, but Ryne Stanek (1.25, 36 IP) has been terrific so far this season. The Hogs also possess an outstanding bullpen with Nolan Sanburn and Barrett Astin leading the way ... For the Tigers, outfielder Raph Rhymes (.479/0/28) has been terrific the past couple of weeks, while on the mound, they have a very solid one-two punch with Kevin Gausman (1.54, 41 IP) and Ryan Eades (2.04, 39 2/3 IP) leading the way. This should be an outstanding series between two very solid clubs.
PG Pick: Arkansas
No. 46 Wake Forest at No. 5 North Carolina : The Demon Deacons started the season on an incredibly high note, but have since come back to reality a little bit. The Deacs have dropped two-straight ACC series to N.C. State and Florida State, and could use a series win over the Tar Heels this weekend. Brian Holmes (1.49, 36 1/3 IP) and Tim Cooney (4.27, 36 2/3 IP) must have good starts this weekend, while the Demon Deacons must improve at the plate with Conor Keniry (.367/0/11) and Carlos Lopez (.340/8/35) leading the way ... For North Carolina, it is coming off an emotional series win over rival N.C. State, where it didn't have stud third baseman Colin Moran for much of the weekend because of an injury. That means Tom Zengel (.328/0/14), Jacob Stallings (.323/2/21) and Tommy Coyle (.301/2/17) must pick up the slack.
PG Pick: North Carolina
No. 7 Kentucky at No. 23 Georgia: The Wildcats expected to be much improved this spring, but this good? I'm not sure anyone expected this. UK hit the road for the first time last weekend, taking a big SEC series from Tennessee. Youngsters A.J. Reed (.360/2/29) and Austin Cousino (.358/3/18) are doing fantastic things at the plate, while the pitching staff is headlined by a stout bullpen and a weekend rotation with quality arms such as Corey Littrell (2.04, 35 1/3 IP), Jerad Grundy (2.88, 34 1/3 IP) and Taylor Rogers (3.82, 35 1/3 IP) ... Georgia took a step back last weekend with a road series loss to Vanderbilt, meaning they need to take care of business at home this weekend. That'll be a tough chore, but the offense has some potential with Curt Powell (.364/1/11), Hunter Cole (.320/4/13) and Kyle Farmer (.318/3/18) leading the way. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have a pair of solid starting pitchers in Alex Wood (2.00, 36 IP) and Michael Palazzone (3.41, 29 IP), but the No. 3 starting spot has lacked consistency.
PG Pick: Kentucky
Southern Mississippi at No. 13 Rice: There's no doubt the Golden Eagles are loaded with talent, problem is much of that talent is in the form of youngsters. Consistency has been an issue for USM. For instance, they it dropped a home series to Murray State two weekends ago before looking pretty good against Houston last weekend. Freshman outfielder Mason Robbins (.394/2/18) has been terrific so far this season, while the same can be said for fellow freshman Connor Barron (.357/0/12). Also keep an eye on JUCO transfer Blake Brown (.315/6/29). Pitching-wise, the Golden Eagles have some quality arms capable of pulling off an upset this weekend, including Andrew Pierce (1.83, 34 1/3 IP) and Jake Drehoff (3.82, 37 2/3 IP), among others ... For the Owls, this team won't be at full strength until right-handed pitcher Austin Kubitza is completely back on track, but fellow righty Matthew Reckling (1.05, 43 IP) is having a terrific campaign. The same can be said for highly touted freshman Jordan Stephens (1.47, 30 2/3 IP). Offensively, keep a close eye on Christian Stringer (.369/3/21), Michael Fuda (.368/3/26) and Jeremy Rathjen (.363/5/19).
PG Pick: Rice
No. 14 Arizona State at No. 26 Oregon: The Sun Devils might not have the ability to earn a national seed or even play in the NCAA postseason this spring, but that hasn't softened their resolve. After dropping a road series to UCLA, the Sun Devils split a two-game midweek series against Cal State Fullerton. Second baseman Joey DeMichele (.376/4/27) is having a big-time offensive campaign, while the Devils desperately need stud shortstop Deven Marrero (.281/2/12) to get things going at the plate. Pitching-wise, the Devils are led by one of the nation's elite arms in right-hander Brady Rodgers (1.31, 48 IP), while Trevor Williams (1.11, 40 2/3 IP) also is having a nice campaign ... The Ducks need to find a way to get back on track after getting swept in a road midweek series against Texas State. The Ducks possess a solid weekend rotation with Jake Reed (2.61, 41 1/3 IP), Alex Keudell (2.95, 39 2/3 IP) and Brando Tessar (3.08, 38 IP) as the headliners, while reliever Jimmie Sherfy (1.63, 27 2/3 IP) is having a tremendous season. The Ducks must get something going offensively this weekend, as they enter the weekend with just a .262 average.
PG Pick: Arizona State
No. 33 Washington at No. 31 Oregon State: The Huskies were expected to be improved this season, but they're definitely better than previously expected. UW is having a solid campaign thus far, and a big reason for that is the emergence of starting pitchers Aaron West (2.12, 34 IP) and Tyler Davis (1.00, 27 IP). Both pitchers have been terrific so far this spring, while reliever Joshua Fredendall (0.79, 11 1/3 IP) is a quality arm to watch ... For Oregon State, this weekend's series against the Huskies is particularly important. The Beavers failed to capture a huge series win over Arizona last weekend, so losing two-straight series would be a big blow. OSU has a good weekend rotation with Dan Child (1.86, 38 2/3 IP) and Ben Wetzler (3.58, 37 2/3) leading the way. Meanwhile, relievers Matt Boyd (1.40, 19 1/3 IP) and Tony Bryant (3.29, 13 2/3 IP) are two of the nation's best. Offensively, the Beavers need a big weekend from freshman outfielder Michael Conforto (.387/4/29) and Tyler Smith (.463/0/17).
PG Pick: Oregon State
No. 41 California at No. 22 Texas: California dazzled everyone last season with a magical trip to Omaha, but so far this season, its campaign has been hampered by a lack of consistency. That must change this weekend against UT. It starts with getting a good performance from left-handed pitcher Justin Jones (4.22, 32 IP) to begin the weekend. Meanwhile, the Bears need strong performances from Matt Flemer (2.76, 42 1/3), and relievers Logan Scott (2.20 16 1/3 IP, 5 saves) and Joey Donofrio (2.30, 15 2/3 IP) ... For Texas, what a see-saw campaign this already has been. The 'Horns were hitting as low as .225 a few weeks ago, but now are hitting .266 as a club, a stark improvement. OF Jonathan Walsh (.380/1/17) has provided a big boost, while third baseman Erich Weiss (.318/3/13) is back up to his usual offensive production. Pitching-wise, the Longhorns have a plethora of strong, but young, arms. Hoby Milner (3.28, 35 2/3 IP), Nathan Thornhill (3.69, 39 IP) and Corey Knebel (1.23, 22 IP, 5 saves) are the headliners.
PG Pick: Texas
No. 47 Virginia at No. 19 North Carolina State: Maybe, just maybe, the Cavaliers took a significant step forward last weekend by sweeping Clemson at home. The Cavaliers are hitting an impressive .324 with Jared King (.378/2/27), Derek Fisher (.333/4/22), Stephen Bruno (.330/2/20) and Chris Taylor (.318/3/25) leading the way, Meanwhile, the Cavaliers need right-handed pitcher Branden Kline (3.10, 40 2/3 IP) to start the weekend on a positive note, while relievers Shane Halley (1.65, 16 1/3 IP) and Justin Thompson (1.80, 15 IP) are elite arms to watch out of the bullpen ... The Wolfpack hopes to rebound after dropping a tough in-state rivalry series with North Carolina. Chris Diaz (.372/1/26) and Ryan Mathews (.329/4/16) are having impressive offensive campaigns, but it's a solid weekend rotation that headlines this team. Carlos Rodon (1.30, 41 2/3 IP), Ethan Ogburn (1.73, 26 IP) and Logan Jernigan (4.03, 22 1/3 IP) spearhead the staff, while reliever Chris Overman (2.13, 12 2/3 IP) leads the bullpen.
PG Pick: N.C. State
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game and can be reached at email@example.com