Matthew Troupe will never forget the save that sealed the fate of a South Carolina team aspiring to achieve a championship three-peat at the College World Series in Omaha five years ago.
He was spotted a three-run lead but the freshman closer walked the bases loaded. That’s when Alex Mejia, the junior shortstop whom he considered to be a little league legend in Southern California, approached him on the mound with an memorable motivational speech.
“He gets really close to me,” Troupe recalled, “and he goes, ‘We worked way to f--- hard to get to this position right now. You better not f------ blow this game for me. You better come in here and you better f---- throw strikes. I’m getting sick and tired of watching you throw balls. You’re way f---- better than this. I am not going to lose this game because of a freshman.’ And then walked away. It was just mind blowing.
“Standing on that mound, two outs away from winning the World Series and the dude just comes up to me and says that to me,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, God, I better throw strikes!’ But hey, the rest was history.”
After getting the final out, the Arizona Wildcats mobbed the mound celebrating the 2012 College World Series championship. Troupe’s heart thumped with adrenaline-fueled jubilation and a fleeting fear of dying in the bottom of the dogpile as his teammates stacked their big bodies on top of him like a Jenga tower.
They returned to Tucson with grey shirts exclaiming “Wildcats own Omaha!” and the program’s first national title since 1986 led by former Arizona Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale.
Troupe went on to finish his playing career at Cal State Northridge in 2016 and then went to Emory University in Atlanta to spend the 2017 season as a pitching coach.
Troupe has since moved onto a new career in his hometown of Newport Beach, Calif., but the legacy of the 2012 Wildcats is the bevy of star players who are in professional baseball trying to weave their way through to minor leagues to reach the promise land that is Major League Baseball.
The inspirational Mejia was the latest member of the title team to reach the big leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals. Mejia is the latest to make an appearance. He could not have picked a better place to make his MLB debut with the St. Louis Cardinals than in Arizona.
Mejia split his time in the minor leagues this season in Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis, where he assisted in the Redbirds quest to the Pacific Coast League playoffs.
But even just for a week in July, there he was, playing in Cardinal red in front of friends and family at Chase Field. The Diamondbacks won the game but Mejia reconnected with some of his college teammates, members of the brotherhood that was born and bred in Tucson.
Along with Mejia, Joey Rickard and Robert Refsnyder also reached the highest level of pro baseball. Refsnyder, now with the Toronto Blue Jays, was the first to debut with the New York Yankees in the middle of the 2015 season.
Rickard was the first to make an Opening Day roster. He came over to the Baltimore Orioles from the Tampa Bay Rays thanks the Rule 5 Draft after the 2015 Baseball Winter Meetings. He made a lasting impression in spring training and was standing besides the likes of Adam Jones and Chris Davis during the national anthem during the 2016 season opener.
Rickard’s first career hit came on his first at-bat. His big day was met with thunderous applause, embraced by both his teammates and fans alike.
“I'm three at-bats into the season and they're screaming and chanting my name,” Rickard said to local reporters on April 4, 2016. “That's something special. I don't know another city that's like that. It's definitely the first time it's happened to me, but I turned around and gave them a wave. Right now they love me, so I'm I happy about it. I love them.”
Before all of that, Rickard was in the Rays farm system with his longtime friend, Jonny Field. Rickard and Field spent their entire baseball career on the diamond in the same high school, college and MLB organization until the end of the 2015 season, something that Field finds to be unique.
“When he got the call, I couldn’t be happier for him,” Field said.
Field, who plays for the Ray’s Triple-A affiliate, the Durham Bulls, is hoping to one day share the big league playing field with Rickard. Until then, they will still have their memories from the time they mastered the field in Omaha, including the moment a crazed female fan franticly crashed onto the outfield in a booty grabbing mission from God-knows-where.
“She got him at center and then she made a beeline for me at left and got me too before she got in trouble,” Field said. “So that was pretty funny that she just went for it. That got viral and someone told me that girl had to do some jail time.”
More than half of the national championship winning Wildcat squad played in the minor leagues, some times as teammates and other times as foes. It was more the ladder than the former. While it may seem weird to go from a celebratory dive on top of a dogpile over the pitcher’s mound in Omaha to sharing the diamond with different uniforms, for Field, it never feels that way.
“I wouldn’t say it’s weird,” Field said. “It’s more cool than anything. You have such a close bond with these guys from winning a championship and going through college together that when we see them, you don’t lose any time, you just pick right back up with them and go out to get a bite to eat with them after the game. If you get on base and you’re next to them, you mess around. You crack joke with them. So it’s fun to run into guys like that.”
Like Field, there are a few other former Wildcats who are scratching the surface. Brandon Dixon knocked in the go-ahead run the championship clinching game against South Carolina five years ago. This year he led the Louisville Bats in home runs (16), RBI (64) and runs scored (58).
“It was amazing,” said Dixon, reminiscing his crowning achievement as a college baseball player. “It’s something you dream about as a kid, 25-35,000 fans screaming for you to come up big for a moment like that.”
The two starting pitchers in the Wildcat’s final series against South Carolina, James Farris and Konner Wade started the season sharing the same bullpen in Double-A Hartford.
Farris was acquired by the Rockies in a trade with the Chicago Cubs during spring training and is the team’s 28th ranked prospect. He is striking out more batters than innings pitched. He told MiLB.com how much his experience in the College World Series did for his confidence.
"That experience, I wasn't expecting it, first off, but it was a good experience," Farris told MiLB.com in June. "There were 24-26,000 people in the stands. It was probably the closest atmosphere [possible] to a Major League stadium. Just being able to get through that, it's just a confidence booster, really."
Lucas Long was a freshman at Arizona in 2012 and appeared in only nine games as a reliever and a spot starter. He transferred to San Diego and ultimately got drafted by the Orioles in 2014. He finished the regular season in Double-A Bowie with the third lowest ERA in the Eastern League.
Trent Gilbert was a major part of the Wildcats since his arrival in 2012. He spent much of the 2017 season in the California League in Single-A Stockton.
None of this came as a surprise to Steve Selsky. He and catcher Jett Bandy were selected in the 2011 MLB Draft as juniors and missed out on the championship run but saw it coming after an impressive collection of recruits flooded the clubhouse. The combination of their talents and the newly rebuffed Hi Corbett Field ultimately led to their title run in 2012.
“I knew playing with those guys and the guys I came up with that a lot of them would eventually become big leaguers,” Selsky said.
Selsky made his MLB debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 2016 and was on this year’s Boston Red Sox opening day roster. Bandy debuted with the LA Angels in 2015 and spent this season with the Milwaukee Brewers.
After spending a short season in the San Diego Padres’ farm system in 2013 after his senior year, Tyler Hale went a different route. He returned to his hometown Abilene, TX, to start a roofing company and a baseball academy. With the help of his experience as a professional pitcher and collegiate champion, the Hale Baseball Academy started up four youth teams including one that made it to the Junior League World Series this season.
It would be interesting to see what the legacy of the 2012 Wildcats will look on the 10-year anniversary of their title triumph. Maybe it will see more of them in the big leagues and another championship returning to Tucson.