Arizona baseball just won’t go away in its pursuit of a return to the NCAA Tournament.
Thursday evening continued to prove that, as the Wildcats (27-24, 12-14) maintained their recent surge by defeating the Penn State Nittany Lions, 11-2, in the first of a crucial six-game road trip to end their season.
Needing to win out to have any chance of hearing its name called on selection day, Arizona’s runaway victory in the series opener in Happy Valley was absolutely critical.
Not only was it the Wildcats’ fifth straight victory and their eighth in their last nine games, but it also improved their RPI to 53rd, all the way up from 67th less than a week ago.
Despite a poor first three-quarters of its year, the UA has now played itself at least back into the conversation of receiving an invite to the postseason.
Junior lefty Randy Labaut (7-3) delivered a gem on the mound in what could’ve been his penultimate start at Arizona, throwing 6.1 innings of solid baseball. The Cuban allowed just one run and four hits, while setting a new career high in strikeouts with nine.
By the time he exited with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the seventh inning, the Wildcats were leading 6-1.
Vince Vannelle and Cameron Haskell combined to get the final eight outs and the former did extremely well to work out of the bases loaded jam in the bottom of the seventh.
With a run already in and Penn State threatening to make it a game, Vannelle used just one pitch to get a double play to end the inning.
The double play was the magic moment of the game, as Penn State wouldn’t get any closer.
Offensively, Nick Quintana and Dayton Dooney led the way in the victory, as each hit home runs.
Dooney finished with three RBIs, tying Blake Paugh for the most on the day, while Quintana’s solo HR was his 13th of the season and the 33rd of his career – tied for the fifth most in program history.
The junior now has 63 RBIs this year - the most by an Arizona player in a single campaign since 2003.
The freshman Dooney now has nine big-flys this season and has homered in three straight games as well.
Another freshman, Branden Boissierre, also drove in a run, while the Nittany Lions coughed up the other three with costly errors and pitching mistakes.
For an Arizona team who is already in win-or-go-home mode, this was yet another step towards the goal the team set all the way back in February: get back to the NCAA Tournament at all costs.
The Wildcats will continue towards that goal when they take on Penn State again on Friday. First pitch is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. MST.