By ERIC OLSON
AP Sports Writer
Few people outside Tucson believe Arizona’s baseball team has a chance to repeat as national champion. Pac-12 coaches have pegged the Wildcats as middle of the pack in the conference, and their highest ranking in the national polls is No. 14.
Coach Andy Lopez pays no attention to the prognosticators.
“There are probably 25 teams right now that have a realistic chance of saying, ‘If we play well at the right time, at the end of the season, we have as much right as anybody to play for it all,’” Lopez said. “I’d like to feel that we’re one of those teams. It’s not like we lost an entire program.”
The Wildcats did lose five everyday players and their staff ace from the team that went 10-0 in the postseason and thwarted South Carolina’s bid for a third straight championship at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
“Obviously, we’ve lost some key guys,” Lopez said. “Who hasn’t when you have a junior class and professional baseball exists? But I don’t ever show up in a season thinking that it can’t be done, because there are too many things that have been done when people have said it can’t be done.”
If the Wildcats need inspiration, all they have to do is look at the last Pac-12 team to win a national title.
In 2007, Oregon State lost six everyday players and its top two pitchers from its 2006 championship team. The Beavers were lightly regarded in the preseason, struggled until the middle of the conference season and sneaked into the NCAA tournament after a late-season surge. The Beavers fought off elimination three times in regionals and twice in super regionals before winning five straight games at the CWS to repeat.
Arizona (48-17 in 2012) opens its title defense at home Friday with a three-game series against Coppin State.
Arkansas, North Carolina and Vanderbilt are among the teams expected to make strong runs at making it to the CWS.
The Razorbacks are No. 1 in the nation in three polls on the strength of five returning position players and 10 pitchers. They also are the coaches’ pick to win the Southeastern Conference after going 46-22 and tying for third in the CWS.
The depth of the staff is coming in handy already. Randall Fant, the projected No. 2 starter, probably won’t pitch for two weeks because of a pulled hamstring and standout reliever Colby Suggs is out this weekend against Western Illinois because of a muscle pull in his rib cage.
“This might be a blessing in disguise,” Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn said, “because we can get some new guys in there, some guys who don’t normally get to pitch much.”
How far the Hogs go will depend on its pitching. Right-hander Ryne Stanek, with his mid-90s fastball, is regarded as the SEC’s top draft prospect this year after going 8-4 with a 2.82 ERA in 17 games last season. Barrett Astin pitched in a team-high 32 games, 29 out of the bullpen, and recorded 11 saves with a 1.99 ERA. Suggs was 7-1 with a 1.38 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .203 average.
North Carolina, which has missed the CWS two of the last three years after making it four years in a row, should be back in the hunt for its first national title. The Tar Heels have their top three starting pitchers back from their 46-16 team. Kent Emanuel, Benton Moss and Hobbs Johnson all had ERAs under 2.00.
Coach Mike Fox said he knows the strength of his pitching makes Carolina a popular pick, but he pointed out that the Tar Heels could drop off behind the plate with the graduation of Jacob Stallings, and they need to develop a proven closer.
“We all know those last 3-6 outs of the game are the hardest, and we don’t know who’s going to fill that void for us,” Fox said. “That’s a question mark for us — big one.”
Plus, Fox said the Tar Heels have to survive an Atlantic Coast Conference schedule that includes a North Carolina State program that is on the rise and traditional powers in Florida State and Georgia Tech. The non-conference schedule has the Tar Heels playing 2012 CWS surprise entry Stony Brook next week and a March trip to Houston to play Rice, California and Texas A&M.
Vanderbilt (35-22) is well-positioned for a strong season with a mix of young players from recruiting classes ranked best in the nation two years in a row and veteran players who appeared in the CWS two years ago.
Coach Tim Corbin said catcher Spencer Navin is on the verge of breaking out after batting .298 with 13 extra-base hits and throwing out 20 base stealers. Tony Kemp, who moved from left field to second base in the middle of last season, stole 21 bases and is tied for the school record with 15 career triples.
First baseman Conrad Gregor hit .328 with three home runs, and senior outfielders Connor Harrell and Mike Yastrzemski combined for 13 homers and 67 RBIs. Corbin said the Commodores go into the season unsettled at shortstop and third base.
T.J. Pecoraro (2-4, 3.40) came off Tommy John surgery to lead the pitching staff, and Corbin likes the potential of Tyler Beede and left-hander Kevin Ziomek.
Stanford (41-18), with star pitcher Mark Appel and a young lineup that is loaded with offensive potential, is picked to win the Pac-12 and will bid for its first trip to Omaha since 2008. North Carolina State, which made its only CWS appearance 45 years ago, has one of the nation’s most dynamic players in shortstop Trea Turner and perhaps the nation’s best left-handed pitcher in Carlos Rodon.
Chad Holbrook takes over as coach for Ray Tanner at South Carolina, and the Gamecocks return key pieces of the team that made it to the CWS finals for the third year in a row. Raph Rhymes, who led the nation with a .431 average, and pitchers Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades have LSU believing it can make it to Omaha for the first time since 2009.
And surely there will be surprise teams like Stony Brook and Kent State were a year ago.
Arizona will lean heavily on its pitching staff to get back to Omaha. Konner Wade, who won two games at the CWS as a sophomore, heads the staff along with James Farris, who started the title-clinching game against South Carolina.
The Wildcats also have their top setup man back in lefty Tyler Crawford and their closer in Mathew Troupe.
Wade (11-3, 3.96) takes over the top starter’s role for Kurt Heyer, who led the nation in innings pitched. Lopez said Wade’s CWS experience will allow him to pitch with confidence.
“I’ve had young guys go to Omaha as freshmen or sophomores and then when they come back the next year, they walk differently, they talk differently, they throw their bullpens differently,” Lopez said.
Arizona has back the Pac-12’s leading hitter in Johnny Field (.370). The biggest question is at shortstop, where freshman Kevin Newman appears set to take over for Pac-12 player of the year Alex Mejia at shortstop.
As with any team, Lopez said, a big key will be how the newcomers adjust to the college game.
“With the younger guys, there should be a little bit of, ‘Hey, we’re playing at the University of Arizona, they just won the national title, let’s try to continue it,’” he said. “The balancing act to that is you hope the guys don’t try to conquer the world in their first at-bat, strike out 15 guys with one pitch and do all the things that you would expect young people to do when they have the title of defending national champion and they’ve never played a college baseball game.”