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NCAA Baseball Tournament: Arizona’s bunt decisions cost Wildcats against Sam Houston State

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The small ball decisions didn’t work out for the Wildcats in the Regional opener

Jared Oliva prepares to take an at bat for Arizona
Jason Bartel

With the Arizona Wildcats rallying in the seventh inning against Sam Houston State, Ryan Haug stepped to the plate with runners on the corners and his team down one.

Jay Johnson put on the squeeze play, and while that may have fooled teams in last year’s postseason, it didn’t work out this time around.

“I figured it was coming,” SHSU head coach Matt Deggs said afterwards. “Runs were at a premium for both clubs tonight — they weren’t coming easy — and I know from my side of things it was hard to get anything going tonight. So at that point they’re just trying to score another run, and if they had it back maybe he places it a little better.”

Colin Cameron, a super athletic righty, came off the bump and made a really phenomenal play,” continued Deggs. “It all probably saved us the game.”

Despite this defensive play, SHSU still committed three errors in the game, which should have been enough to give Arizona a win combined with the fact that the Wildcats out-hit the Bearkats 13-10.

“We’re gonna have to play a better ballgame tomorrow night than we did defensively tonight,” Deggs said. “I understand that we blew up a safety squeeze at the plate...but we’re going to have to play a little better than we did tonight defensively.”

One thing that wasn’t exactly predictable was Johnson’s decisions to bunt Jared Oliva in the first half of the game. The first time was a safety situation, but Oliva got to two strikes, and eventually struck out swinging.

“Early in the game, I think it’s important to play from ahead especially in this type of game against that type of team,” Johnson explained. “I felt like the safety he does a good job of it, and a lot of times he has it executed, we get the run, and he’s safe because he’s a great runner. That was the thought process there.”

The second time, Oliva did not bunt, and instead lined into an rally-killing double play to the third baseman against SHSU pitcher Riley Cooper in the fifth inning.

“The flip side is they are not going to turn a double play because he’s one of the elite runners in college baseball,” Johnson said of opting not to bunt there. “Cooper’s batting average against left-handed hitters is .128, so with Alfonso (Rivas) on deck, the double play probability not high, I wanted to go for it there and let Jared swing so maybe we’re first and third with no outs and a run in so Alfonso doesn’t have to create the inning for himself.”

“Then Cooper made a nice pitch and (Rivas) popped up to shortstop,” continued Johnson. “The probability of a double play with (Oliva) running, it probably had to go like that with a diving play, tag the bag, throw it across the infield and you just don’t see that very often.”

As luck would have it, Oliva came up in the same situation in the seventh, but roped a single through the left side for an RBI to start the seventh inning mini-rally before the Haug misbunt later in the at bat.

It’s interesting to compare Arizona baseball and Arizona softball the past two weeks. In softball’s case, every pitching move that Mike Candrea made backfired. And now in baseball’s case, every bunting decision Johnson made backfired. You gotta live and die by what got you there, and right now (along with defensive shifts), the bunting is killing the Wildcats.

They’ll look to turn that around at Noon PT against Delaware in an elimination game on Saturday.