Baseball takes Regional, nears World Series play

By James Kelley
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Wildcats go undefeated to advance furthest since '86

Very few schools' histories can rival that of Arizona when it comes to baseball, but all those great accomplishments came years ago.

That is, until now.

The 18th-ranked UA (33-24-1) won its first Regional since 1986, which was also the last time it won the College World Series, by going 3-0 in the double elimination tourney and paying back two teams they went 0-3-1 against during the regular season.

The third-seed Wildcats beat second seed UC Irvine 7-3, fourth seed Kent State 7-4 and the top seed and host of the South Bend Regional, Notre Dame, which was ranked No. 5 in the country, 7-6, to advance to the Super Regionals.

"The program has been down for a while; we're just really happy to be doing well again and getting this place back to where it was," said junior catcher Richard Mercado.

This is Arizona's first appearance in the Super Regionals, a tier of the playoffs that was added in 1999. The winner of the best-of-three series between the Wildcats and No. 13 Long Beach State (39-13) advances to the College World Series.

Arizona has the eighth most World Series appearances (8), the seventh most wins (32), the eighth most games played (57) and the sixth most championships (3), and the current Wildcats are excited about the possibility to add to those numbers.

"This program has a lot of history, a lot of world series appearances; we all know, it was big and we are happy to get back to the Super Regionals," said junior second baseman John Hardy.

The Regional sweep was even more impressive considering Arizona had lost to UC-Irvine twice in Tucson earlier this year and had lost to the Fighting Irish in their only regular season game.

"It is a different club; they're older, we got the second most difficult schedule in the nation, so they're a little bit tougher, a little bit more ready for what they are going through and I think they've proven that over the last six weeks, especially this weekend in South Bend," said UA head coach Andy Lopez. "That was the toughest environment I had coached in 3,000 people and not many Arizona people there and for them to do what they did was quite an accomplishment."

While there were many heroes for the Wildcats, junior pitcher Koley Kolberg (9-6) may take the cake. The UA's ace won the first game of the Regional and then came back to get the save in the championship against the top of Notre Dame's order.

"It is pretty much an indescribable feeling, I guess, to help out the team that much and to be a big part of it in that way," Kolberg said about getting the save.

Sophomore first baseman Jordan Brown currently has a 10-game hitting streak and sophomore pitcher John Meloan (9-0, 8-0 as a starter) has been stellar since moving from the bullpen to the Sunday starter position, helping the Wildcats go from a bubble team to the sweet sixteen.

Every Super Regional game will be televised on either ESPN or ESPN2 and Arizona's games are 7 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. Saturday and 3 or 6 p.m. Sunday.

Long Beach State, which beat Pac-10 champ and No. 5 national seed Stanford twice to get to the Super Regionals, will be next for the Wildcats. Coming with them will be the Dirtbags' ace and the Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year, junior Jared Weaver (15-1).

"Long Beach State is a good program a great program, I mean. They've got three dominant pitchers Jared Weaver, he was a first rounder, their young guy was a second rounder and their other pitcher will be first-three rounder when he is draft-eligible next year; they're well stocked pitching-wise," Lopez said.

Weaver was first in wins, first in strikeouts and third in ERA in the nation going into the tournament and was the 12th overall pick in the 2004 MLB draft, going to the Anahiem Angels. Fellow Dirtbag pitcher junior Jason Vargas was picked in the second round by the Florida Marlins.

Long Beach State swept three games from the Wildcats in Long Beach earlier this year. When they first faced Weaver, he went 7 innings, giving up only three hits and one walk. But Weaver had far fewer strikeouts than usual in the Beach's 4-0 win to open the series.

"We don't know if he had an off night or not; he had been striking out like 15 a game before that and only stuck out three that game," Hardy said. "We hit some balls hard, but they kind of died in that park, so we need to go in this weekend and have some short strokes and just try and get base hits."

Arizona is the last remaining Pac-10 team, after the league got five teams into the regional for the first time since 1997.

Kolberg, Hardy and Mercado were also picked on the draft's first day. Kolberg and Mercado were picked in the seventh and 12th rounds, respectively, by the Arizona Diamondbacks, while Hardy was picked in the seventh by the Philadelphia Phillies.