That all changed in a hurry as Arizona sprinted to a 9-4 victory to open the series.
It all started in the bottom of the fifth.
With one out in the frame, Cal Stevenson, Alfonso Rivas, and Jared Oliva all picked up singles, giving Arizona a 3-2 lead at the time.
After JJ Matijevic grounded out to the pitcher, a balk scored Rivas, and a Nick Quintana double scored Oliva, putting the Wildcats up three.
Mitchell Morimoto and Cesar Salazar added RBI singles of their own, leading to a 7-2 advantage when all was said and done.
“We made a nice adjustment that third time through the order,” head coach Jay Johnson said afterwards. “Our murderers row — if you will — doing their thing.”
This also ended USC starting pitcher Chris Clarke’s night, who allowed 10 hits and a walk in his 4 2⁄3 innings of work.
Opposing Clarke was Arizona ace JC Cloney, who allowed a solo home run in the second and an RBI double in the fourth.
Those would be the only two runs he gave up in seven innings of work. Cloney scattered six hits and walked two Trojans on 114 total pitches. He also recorded three strikeouts.
“If you’re gonna be put in a Friday night role, you need to go out and perform,” Cloney said of his consistency. “You’re in the Pac-12, you need to put your team in a position to win every game, and if coach thinks I’m the guy to do that then I’m gonna go out and do that.”
“Yeah, I am,” Quintana responded when asked if he expects this from Cloney now. “After opening day and his start that he had, it’s just a different feel when he’s on the mound. When he gets on the mound it’s gonna be either a blowout because we scored so many runs and he’s just shoving, or it’s gonna be a 1-0 game and he’s just on point, so it’s always fun to play behind him.”
“It’s about as simple as he’s just hard to hit,” added Quintana about what makes Cloney so good. “His velo may not be the fastest on the team but it’s sneaky; it runs. His offspeed’s great and sharp, and he’s just difficult to hit all around.”
In the bottom of the seventh, Arizona padded its lead a little more. On a 3-0 count, Quintana smashed a meaty pitch to left center field, skying it just shy of the red boundary line.
“Off the bat I thought it was gone,” Cloney said. “I heard it hit the wall and I thought he was going to pull up for a double.”
“When I hit it off the bat, I knew it wasn’t going to go out because it’s the deepest part of the field,” Quintana explained. “So I’m running and rounding second base, and I see the ball’s far from the outfielders so I’m like ‘Alright, stand up triple’.”
USC played the bounce poorly, and the ball slowly made its way back into center field. Quintana rounded the bases as quickly as he could.
“I’m kinda running, looking over my shoulder, seeing where the ball’s at,” continued Quintana. “Coming up to third I kinda slowed down a little bit, and I just see Coach Johnson waving his arm and I’m like ‘Oh alright, let’s go’.”
“All of the sudden I saw coach waving him home,” Cloney added.
“To be honest, yeah,” Quintana replied if he was surprised to see Johnson waving him home. “If Johnson thinks there might be a play at the plate, he’ll just send you. I’ve seen him wave some of our players home all the time and it’s fun to see. I wasn’t expecting it, but I’m not gonna stop at third base while he’s waving me around. I’m gonna trust him.”
“I never wanna get anybody thrown out with no outs,” explained Johnson. “I got kind of caught up in the play. It was hit so hard I couldn’t believe how much it caromed in here and the guy had to pick it up still. They made a really good relay and I’m glad it worked out the way that it did.”
The throw home beat Quintana, but the USC catcher dropped it while applying the tag, giving the freshman third baseman his first inside-the-park home run of the year and fourth dinger total this year.
“They probably had me by like three steps,” Quintana said. “I didn’t want to run into the guy because you can’t do that, so I saw the tag, and I kinda slid into the left portion of his body hoping the ball came out and it did.”
“Then there was a mosh pit right here and I knew I had to take my helmet off because I’d be concussed after,” he joked. “It kinda just happened so fast, but it was cool.”
Quintana would come out of the game after the play, letting Sawyer Gieseke take his spot in the field.
“He’s fine,” Johnson said of Quintana afterwards. “He’s not hurt. Sawyer’s been playing third base and it’s a good role he plays for our team. He would’ve gone in normally.”
Austin Schnabel also took over on the mound for Cloney.
The Trojans got a couple of guys in scoring position with just one out in the 8th. A fly ball to right was not deep enough to score the runner from third, but a bloop single that Oliva almost got to dropped in for a two-run, two-out hit by David Edson.
Rivas took over for Schnabel, and after a poor showing on Wednesday picked up a strikeout looking to end the inning. He followed that up with a scoreless ninth to close out the victory, moving Arizona to 3-4 in Pac-12 play. USC is now 4-3. U of A is also a perfect 14-0 at home this year.
Arizona and USC play game two of the three-game set on Saturday night at 6 PM PT. Randy Labaut will make his second career start.
“I don’t see why he couldn’t go out and give us seven, eight, maybe nine innings of solid work,” Cloney said of his teammate. “He’s a solid guy on the mound with a solid three-pitch mix, so he’s gonna go out and compete for us.”
“I think his maturity,” Cloney added about what Labaut has improved the most this season. “Finally getting into Pac-12 play, that’s what’s going to keep you alive in this conference, and I think his maturity is outstanding for a freshman — or a sophomore, whatever you wanna call him — but to be a Saturday guy or any guy in this league, you gotta have some confidence, and his maturity is adding to that confidence.”