College : : Story
Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A ray of hope for limping 'Cats

Jeff Dahn        

TUCSON, Ariz. -- The University of Arizona baseball program will always have 2012. No one can ever take the NCAA Division I National Championship and College World Series Championship earned with an impressive 10-0 run though the postseason away from the Wildcats from the mighty Pacific-12 Conference.

And these Wildcats will continue to carry the title of "Reigning NCAA National Champions" until they are dethroned either June 25 or 26 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb. That's assuming, of course, that they're dethroned at all. The day the 2013 national champion will be crowned is still three months away.

So far, however, the defense of the 2012 title has gotten off to a rough start for the Wildcats. Following a 15-5 start in the non-conference portion of the schedule that saw the U of A move into the Perfect Game National Top 25 Rankings, the Wildcats were swept in season-opening Pac-12 series by No. 5 Oregon State (21-2) and No. 11 Oregon (18-6) and saw their records fall to 15-11 overall and 0-6 in the league.

It's not an end-all, of course. The Wildcats' schedule had them open conference play against two of the top teams in the Pac-12 -- UCLA is ranked No. 4 and Arizona State No. 24 -- and there has been at least one very pleasant surprise at Hi Corbett Field: the play of junior third baseman Brandon Dixon. In fact, if Arizona hadn't gone 0-6 to open league play, Dixon just might be the league's best story as March gives way to April.

 "We've had a couple of struggles, but I think that's going to happen in a tough conference like this," Dixon told PG during a recent interview from Hi Corbett. "I've been feeling pretty good so far; I feel confident at the plate and I feel good in the field, and I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help the team win."

The Arizona Wildcats will always have 2012. They won nine of their last 12 regular season games to finish with a 38-17 overall record and tie with UCLA for the Pac-12 championship at 20-10.They blitzed Missouri and Louisville (twice) in an NCAA Regional they hosted at Hi Corbett and then beat St. John's twice in a Super Regional -- also at Hi Corbett -- to advance to the CWS in Omaha.

Once there, they won all five of their games, including the first two in a best-of-3 championship series against two-time defending champion South Carolina to finish 48-17 overall. It was Arizona's fourth overall national championship and first since 1986.

Dixon could almost be described as a bit player during the championship run. He played in 62 of the team's 65 games, including 38 starts at first base, and hit .245 with 15 RBI and 30 runs scored. In 10 postseason appearances, he hit .303 with nine RBI and seven runs, and came through with a game-winning RBI double in Arizona's 2-1 win over South Carolina in the title-clinching game of the CWS championship series.

"It's really hard to explain; you can't really put it into words," Dixon said of the Wildcats' 2012 postseason run. "That was just one of the most amazing experiences that I've had. That team, we were very close and we got to experience something real special last year and it was just so enjoyable. Every game we went into, we never even thought about losing; we just knew we were going to win regardless of who we were playing. Everyone was just clicking at that point and it was the right time to get hot, and we definitely did.

"It was everything I thought I would it be," he continued. "Just playing in front of that many people, and the facility -- the field and everything is just amazing. For those two weeks you get treated like a major league ballplayer, and it's a pretty awesome experience."

Dixon became Lopez's starting third baseman this season and has been a sensation, both at the plate and on the field. Through the Wildcats' first 26 games, he was hitting .408 (40-for-98) with six doubles, four triples, four home runs, 27 RBI and 35 runs scored.

His batting average, doubles, home runs and runs led the team, as did his .478 on-base percentage, .673 slugging percentage and 20 stolen bases in 21 attempts. He has been hitting almost exclusively out of the cleanup spot in the order, behind table-setters and PG alumni Zach Gibbons, Riley Moore and Johnny Field.

"At the start, when I first came in here, I was like a fifth infielder and just got a few at-bats my freshman year," Dixon said. "Last year I had some struggles offensively and now this year I'm getting an opportunity to play every day and I'm trying to take advantage of that."

On March 12, in a non-conference game against Butler at Hi Corbett, Dixon was 4-for-5 with two home runs, a triple and a single, driving in five runs and coming up just a double short of hitting for the cycle. He became the first player to register a multi-homer game at spacious Hi Corbett Field -- the former spring training home of the Cleveland Indians and Colorado Rockies -- since the Wildcats made it their off-campus home last season.

"I'm not going to lie, I thought Brandon Dixon would be pretty good this year, but this good? He's just been on fire thus far," Lopez said earlier this month.

One of the most rewarding decisions Dixon made to improve his game over the offseason was deciding to undergo Lasik vision surgery. The procedure has obviously led o the 6-foot-1, 213-pound corner-infielder seeing the ball much better than he did in the past.

"I made the decision to get Lasik eye surgery because last year in the middle of the game my contacts would bother me," Dixon said told "After talking to people who have done it before, I decided that was the way to go. It has definitely helped me to see the ball well."

Dixon graduated from Murietta Valley High School in Murietta, Calif., in 2010 as a somewhat unheralded infielder. Perfect Game ranked him as a top-500 prospect in his class, but he went undrafted out of high school. He attended six PG events during his prep years, including the 2008 PG California Underclass Showcase and PG Sunshine West Showcase, and earned 7.0 grades (10.0 is the best) at both events.

He also played with the ABD Bulldogs in the 2009 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. All 18 of the players on that ABD roster had already committed to NCAA Division I schools by the time they arrived in Jupiter.

Forty-four prospects who played at the 2009 PG WWBA World Championship went on to become either first-round or first-round compensation draft picks, including Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado, both of whom made their big-league debuts in 2012 with the Baltimore Orioles.

"I was definitely very young and inexperienced at that point, but they were definitely a good thing to go to," Dixon said of his showcase experiences. And when asked about his recollections of playing in the PG WWBA World Championship, he said, "I remember that one being huge with a ton of scouts and a ton of different teams, and a lot of great competition out there. Every experience I've had with baseball has been beneficial, getting me to where I'm at today."

Perfect Game ranks Dixon as the 409th overall prospect in June's MLB First-Year Player Draft, which projects to the 12th or 13th round. With at least two more months of the college season left to play, his stock would certainly rise if he continues to put up the kind of numbers he has to this date, especially against the quality of pitching he sees in the rugged Pac-12.

"I'm mostly focused on what we're doing right now and the things the team is working on right now," Dixon said. "I'm really just focusing on this season, and we'll see what happens later on."

Yes, the Arizona Wildcats will always have 2012. And even if they don't get a chance to defend their national title in Omaha in late June, Dixon, for one, will always cherish the time he has spent in Tucson.

"It's been amazing; I wouldn't trade the experiences that I've had for anything," he said. "Playing for Coach Lopez has been awesome, and definitely last year was outstanding getting to play for a national championship and then winning that. But, yeah, I wouldn't trade anything that I've experienced at the U of A for anything else."

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