Mejia drives Arizona toward title

OMAHA, Neb. -- A few months before his first game as a college baseball player, Alex Mejia made a bold proclamation to Robert Refsnyder, his new roommate at the University of Arizona.

"I'm going to be our starting shortstop as a freshman," Mejia told him.

Refsnyder chuckled and shook his head.

"No way," he said. "There's no way."

The reasons for Refsnyder's pessimism were simple. Arizona's shortstop, Bryce Ortega, had earned first-team All Pac-10 honors the previous season. An incoming freshman unseating a respected veteran? Wasn't going to happen.

There was also the issue of Mejia's -- um, what's the best way to say this -- physique.

"I weighed 213 pounds," Mejia said. "If you would've looked at my body back then, you would've laughed when I made that prediction, too."

Yet three weeks into the 2010 season, there was Mejia, starting at shortstop for the Wildcats. Too good to keep off the field, Mejia gave coach Andy Lopez no other option but to move Ortega to second base.

"The rest," Lopez said, "is history."

It's an inspiring story, to be sure.

And one that still is being written.

The kid who arrived on campus as an unheralded freshman is now the top player for an Arizona squad that is two wins away from a national championship. The Wildcats -- 3-0 in Omaha so far -- will face two-time defending champion South Carolina in a best-of-three series beginning Sunday at TD Ameritrade Park.

Mejia is far from the only reason Arizona remains in the hunt for its first CWS title since 1986. Konner Wade and Kurt Heyer are among the best starting pitchers nationally; the Wildcats boast a team batting average of .329; and earlier this month, five players were selected in the Major League Baseball amateur draft.

Still, anyone associated with Arizona's program will point to Mejia as the catalyst for its success.

"His passion to succeed, his intangibles, his knowledge of the game ... Alex has it all," Lopez said. "I wouldn't trade him for anyone."

There are some analysts who believe Mejia is the best shortstop in all of college baseball. The reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year -- and Defensive Player of the Year -- is hitting .361 and boasts a fielding percentage of .959.

Those are phenomenal numbers for a shortstop and likely one of the reasons the St. Louis Cardinals selected Mejia in the fourth round (150th overall) of this year's draft.

Mejia, whose family is struggling financially, is expected to leave school a year early and turn pro. But he's hardly focused on such issues as Arizona prepares to play South Carolina.

"We're not done yet," he said Friday. "We've got two or three more games. We've got to take care of business. We'll worry about the other stuff once this is all over. We put ourselves in a position to win a national title.

"We're going to enjoy this."

It wasn't long ago that Mejia wondered if he'd ever get such a chance.

Mejia wasn't heavily recruited following his junior season at El Camino Real High School in Sylmar, Calif. But he caught the eye of Lopez at an Arizona baseball camp during the summer. Not because of his skills, but because of his last name.

Lopez had played against a third baseman named Carlo Mejia in high school and college in the 1970s. Lopez starred at UCLA; Carlo competed for Pepperdine.

When Lopez noticed "Mejia" on the back of Alex's jersey during Arizona's camp, 30 years later, he pulled the teenager aside and asked if he was related to Lopez's former rival.

"That's my father," Alex told the coach. "He said to tell you hello."

Lopez smiled.

"If you're anything like your father, I'm not going to let you leave," he said.

Arizona immediately began recruiting Mejia. At 6-foot-1, 213 pounds, Mejia was about 13 pounds overweight when he showed up in Tucson -- mainly because he'd never had the benefit of working with a strength and conditioning coach.

Along with dropping down to 200 pounds, Mejia has significantly improved his speed and coordination the past three years, and Lopez has helped him shorten his stroke at the plate.

"No one understands how hard he works," Refsnyder said. "He's one of the strongest guys on our team, and his lateral movement has gotten so much better."

So, too, has Mejia's mental approach.

"You have to learn from every single game," Mejia said, "but you can't get caught up in the moment. You can't let one play or one mistake or one loss get you down. You still have to go out and play the next game -- and then another one and another one after that. You're constantly learning."

Lopez couldn't be more impressed with the strides Mejia has made. On Friday he compared Mejia to a handful of other major league shortstops he's coached: Mark Ellis, David Eckstein and Craig Grebeck.

"I wouldn't trade [Mejia] for any of them," Lopez said Friday. "Not at this stage."

Statistics and production aren't the only reasons Lopez may seem partial to Mejia, who became a Wildcat during a crucial period for Arizona's program.

Lopez said he made numerous mistakes with his previous recruiting class in 2009 that threatened the stability of the team. He said he signed "a ridiculous group of human beings" who rarely went to class and refused to work hard in practice.

When players such as Lopez, Refsnyder, Heyer, center fielder Joey Rickard and third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean arrived the following year, the coach felt refreshed.

Three seasons later, it's obvious the Wildcats -- especially the junior class -- are defined by a true sense of family.

"It's great to see your friends succeed," Refsnyder said. "When I see them get a base hit and get pumped up, I'm pumped up, too. We've been through a lot together. That's the best part about college baseball. The camaraderie. It's not about money or success or fame. It's about winning."

Mejia agrees. He said the three-year journey he and his teammates endured to get to the College World Series is making the experience even more enjoyable.

"If we were younger, we wouldn't have enjoyed it as much because we wouldn't have appreciated all it took to get here," he said. "I'm glad it happened like this. We're a bunch of puzzle pieces that all fit together so well.

"This is a great moment in our lives."

And it's not over yet.