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Arizona baseball hoping to benefit from starting NCAA Tournament at Hi Corbett

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Garrett Irvin will start one of Arizona’s first two games in the NCAA Tournament this weekend, and the process of preparing for that start will be a familiar one.

“I think it’s very beneficial,” Irvin said of playing a regional at Hi Corbett Field, which Arizona last did in 2012. “From a starting pitcher’s perspective, you’re driving to the field from your house and you’re just driving to show up to the game about two hours early and you just get to go to work, instead of waking up in a hotel bed that you’re not used to sleeping in. It’s definitely an advantage. I’m definitely blessed. We’re all very excited to be playing this week at our own field.”

Arizona (40-15) is the No. 5 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, which means it would not have to leave Hi Corbett in order to reach the College World Series in Omaha. Though the Wildcats went 13-8 in road and neutral-site games this season, including taking two of three at Oregon State two weeks ago to clinch the Pac-12 title, there’s no substitute for being able to play at home, where they are 27-7 and have won 14 of their last 15.

UA coach Jay Johnson said Monday, after the NCAA field was announced, that home field advantage was very underrated in college baseball. He’s certainly hasn’t been taking it for granted this week as he and his staff prepared not just for Friday’s game against Grand Canyon but the possibility of facing either Oklahoma State or UC Santa Barbara on Saturday.

“There’s a lot of preparation that goes into playing three teams, or preparing for three teams,” Johnson said. “I was very thankful to be sitting in my office all day, all night on Tuesday and Wednesday for sure.”

Arizona has won 19 of its last 23, reaching 40 wins in the regular season for the first time since 2007. The Wildcats didn’t look particularly crisp on the final weekend, however, losing the middle game to Division I newcomer Dixie State and needing late rallies to win the other two (including a walkoff win in the finale).

Finishing on Saturday allowed the UA to get “maybe just a little bit of a mental break Sunday,” Johnson said. Also working in Arizona’s favor is that its two main starting pitchers, Irvin and Chase Silseth, only threw a combined 138 pitches in their final starts.

“We’re both very excited to get out this weekend,” said Irvin, a junior left-hander who is 5-2 with a 3.93 ERA. “This week we focused on getting our bodies right. Me and Silseth have both talked about how good we feel this week. There’s no leaving anything in the tank. At this point, whatever day I throw I’m ready to go out there, and if they need me to go another day, come Sunday or Monday, that I’m good to go.”

This is Arizona’s first postseason appearance since 2017, when it went 1-2 at the Lubbock Regional after spending most of the season in the top 10 nationally. None of the current Wildcats were a part of that team—senior reliever Preston Price made one appearance early in the season—and only outfielder Tanner O’Tremba has Division I playoff experience as a member of Texas Tech’s 2019 CWS team.

Johnson isn’t concerned about that, since no team in the 2021 has played in an NCAA tourney game in two years. Additionally, he’s felt like his squad has been in playoff baseball for weeks during its run to the Pac-12 title.

“Maturity and mindset is probably the strength of our team,” he said. “They’re prepared, they’re ready for it, they know they’re ready for it. We have a lot of really, really good college players that have formed a good team, both mentally and physically.”

With 100 percent capacity allowed at Hi Corbett—which UA players often refer to as HiC—Friday’s crowd will no doubt be the largest of the season. The addition of fans coming to see Grand Canyon in its first-ever NCAA tourney puts the stadium postseason record crowd of 5,086 in jeopardy, and the all-time UA record of 8,067 (vs. ASU in 2016) could also be in play.

“I know it’s going to be a packed house regional at Hi Corbett, but they’re all coming to show their support,” junior centerfielder Donta’ Williams said. “The whole team is excited to have the Juice Box bumping.”