Talent at bat, untested pitching headlines '04 squad

By Charles Renning
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Lopez seeks fourth trip to Omaha

Every year since taking over the Arizona baseball program, head coach Andy Lopez has raised the expectations for the Wildcats.

After reaching the postseason in 2003 for the first time since 1999, the Wildcats are expecting to push even further into the playoffs this season.

Arizona suffered a pair of losses and an early exit from last season's NCAA Regional, but that has left this year's squad more anxious to improve on last season's playoff disappointment.

"This year, we came back hungrier than last season," senior second baseman Moises Duran said. "We know what it's like to make a regional, but now we want to know what it's like to win a regional."

Arizona returns 14 position players who contributed last year, but the big question mark coming into the season is the team's pitching.

"(Our pitching staff) is OK. I hope they will surprise me and we'll be better than OK," Lopez said. "We don't have a lot of margin for error, but sometimes that's good."

He went on to say that sometimes when there is little room for error, players concentrate more and perform better.

The Wildcats lost their three regular starters in Richie Gardner, Sean Rierson and Joe Little and could possibly begin the 2004 campaign with three starters with no Division I experience.

"It's a very untested, young staff in many ways, but I am excited and eager to see how they perform," Lopez said.

To try to make up for the inexperience on the mound, the Wildcats' lineup is loaded with talent.

"We definitely have enough offense to carry us for most of the year, but you need pitching if you want to win championships," Duran said.

Arizona returns the reigning Pacific 10 Conference batting champion in junior left fielder Jeff Van Houten.

Van Houten finished last season with a .413 batting average and 72 RBI.

The Wildcats return seven other players who saw significant playing time last year and hit over .315.

The team starts its season Friday at 1 p.m. against UC Riverside at Frank Sancet Stadium. UC Riverside will be the first in a long line of tough nonconference opponents for the Wildcats. It's schedule includes four teams that advanced to the postseason a year ago, including the Highlanders.

"It's going to be a great year," Duran. "We'll turn a lot of heads."