Arizona’s baseball team is back in Omaha, Neb., for the 18th time in pursuit of its fifth College World Series title. Memories from Arizona’s championship teams will be presented at AllSportsTucson.com in the coming days. Arizona begins play in the CWS on Saturday at 4 p.m. against defending champion Vanderbilt.
Things looked bleak for Arizona when Paul Sorrento’s grand slam off starter Gil Heredia put Florida State ahead 5-0 in the second inning of the 1986 College World Series winners bracket quarterfinals game.
On top of that, Jack Magruder of the Arizona Daily Star wrote that a black cat circled the outfield at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., during the game.
“But so what?” Magruder wrote. “The University of Arizona worry?”
Magruder was eluding to Arizona rallying from down 7-0 to beat Maine 8-7 in the opening round game on pinch-hitter Dave Shermet’s two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth.
Heredia was the starter in that game as well, so he once again had to battle against Florida State.
“Probably one of the biggest things I remember is we were really experienced and we were down 5-0 with Mike Loynd pitching for Florida State,” former Arizona catcher Steve Strong told me this week. “Loynd was 20-1 that year and Florida State was No. 1 in the nation.
“After Paul Sorrento hit that grand slam, I went out to the mound with Coach Wing (longtime Jerry Kindall assistant Jim Wing) to talk with Gil. It was amazing that Gilly was a cool customer and he didn’t get rattled. Winger said, ‘Settle down and make pitches.’ Gilly said, ‘Let’s just go get ’em,’ and he absolutely shut them down the rest of the night. I’ll never forget seeing the confidence in his eyes. There wasn’t a bit of doubt.”
Heredia went on to pitch a complete game in Arizona’s 9-5 victory to reach the semifinals. He improved to 16-3, setting a school record for victories in a season. He retired the last 11 batters he faced as Arizona won its 11th straight game.
A five-run sixth inning, that included a three-run home run by Mike Senne, put Arizona ahead for good, 7-5, and knocked Loynd out of the game. Loynd’s 17-game winning streak was snapped.
“That comeback was probably one of the biggest things that sticks out,” Strong said. “I think it was just kind of an extension of our experience.”
Most of Kindall’s lineup returned from the previous season when Arizona reached the College World Series but was eliminated after two games.
The lineup was also very balanced, said Strong, who noted that Dave Rohde, the No. 9 batter in the lineup batted .330 and went on to play in the big leagues.
Arizona won what would be Kindall’s third and last College World Series championship. He coached another decade through 1996. The legendary coach, the first to win a CWS title as a player (at Minnesota) and a coach, passed away almost four years ago.
“We all miss having coach Kendall around,” Strong said. “He was absolutely a phenomenal big-game coach. Preparation-wise, there’s nobody better at getting ready to play. He knew how to handle things and get teams ready.”
The championship in 1986 was won against Florida State and Loynd once again, a 10-2 triumph in which the Wildcats dominated from the start.
Gary Alexander outdueled Loynd scattering seven hits over nine innings with seven strikeouts and two walks.
Senne, the CWS Most Outstanding Player, hit another home run in the sixth inning, a two-run shot. The late Gar Millay, who passed away from a brain tumor in 2011, added another two-run shot in Arizona’s four-run sixth that blew the game open.
Strong said he keeps in contact with most of his 1986 teammates, including text messaging Chip Hale practically daily. Hale, former manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, is the third base coach of the Detroit Tigers.
Strong also added that he has returned to Omaha once since 1986, when Arizona advanced there in 2016.
He will watch the Wildcats from home this time. They open the CWS against Vanderbilt on Saturday at 4 p.m
“It is a cool experience,” he said. “Every time the Wildcats go, it brings back memories. You get a chance to think back to what that season was like and what that experience was like.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District