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Arizona baseball defeats Ball State to split season-opening series, but Jay Johnson is ‘very disappointed’

TJ Nichols
Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

After losing two games in a season-opening series for the first time under head coach Jay Johnson, Arizona baseball bounced back with an impressive 11-5 victory over Ball State in Monday’s series finale.

The nationally ranked Wildcats remarkably scored in each inning of the game, and the win meant that they split the series with the Cardinals, moving their record to 2-2 after dropping two straight on Saturday and Sunday.

However, Johnson expressed his dissatisfaction in his team’s performance to open the season.

“I’m very disappointed in the weekend, and that’s to take nothing away from Ball State,” he said, “I think that’s a very good team. I’m just disappointed that we left a lot on the table in terms of what we could have accomplished. We have to take the positive from that to figure out how we can improve from here.”

Freshman righty TJ Nichols (1-0) got the win in his collegiate debut, allowing just two runs over five innings while striking out three in his outing.

With numerous major league scouts in attendance (but no fans), Nichols flashed both a lively fastball and an impressive breaking ball, stranding six runners on base and only walking two. He worked in and out of trouble, at one point getting out of a jam with runners on second and third and just one out in the third inning.

With his team leading by only one run, Nichols used his athleticism to snatch a come back line drive out of the air and then wheel around to double-up the Ball State runner at third to end the threat with the Cats’ lead intact.

Nichols was fired up.

“That was a huge play,” he said. “I had already given up two in the inning, I knew I had to make a play, I knew I had to make a pitch.”

Johnson was impressed by Nichols’ debut.

“He had really good composure,” Johnson said. “Some guys allowed it to snowball on them this weekend when things went bad, TJ didn’t do that. He stayed present pitch to pitch. He had traffic on the bases, but never let anything get away from him.”

Arizona’s offense was mercurial over the first three games of the year, but wasted no time getting going during Monday’s matinee, opening the scoring in the top of the first inning when Jacob Blas perfectly placed a bunt to the right of the pitcher to score Kobe Kato with two outs. Kato had reached on an infield single to start the inning and moved to third after a wild pitch and a balk.

The Cats tacked on two more runs in the second, making it 3-0, this time benefiting from an RBI double from freshman Jacob Berry to score Donta Williams and a sacrifice fly from Ryan Holgate.

Arizona then added a run in the third via another Berry RBI and three more in the fourth to bring the score to 7-2.

Berry, a highly touted freshman, had come into the day 0-6 in his career, but truly had his moment of arrival Monday, going 3-3 with two RBI and walk.

“He had a really tough night Friday night, but he was obviously a huge part of the win today,” Johnson said. “He put good swings on good pitches and managed the zone. He showed some glimpses of what he’s capable of.”

The Wildcats’ runs in the fourth came from an opposite field drive from Holgate, who has seven RBIs in the young season (good for more than 25% of Arizona’s runs), a Branden Boissiere triple and a wild pitch that scored Mac Bingham.

As the game progressed, Arizona’s offense continued to produce, adding a single run in each of the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth innings.

Kato drove in Williams in the fifth, while Holgate scored on a balk in the sixth to make it 9-2.

The Wildcats’ run in the seventh came on a double-play that scored Tony Bullard, while the run in the eighth came when freshman Kaden Hopson notched his first ever RBI after he singled Williams home to bring the score to 11-5.

Freshman righty Dawson Netz worked two innings of clean relief in the sixth and seventh before allowing three runs to come across in the top of the eighth, while senior right hander Preston Price got the final six outs for Arizona.

The Wildcats will now prepare for a four game series with Southeastern Louisiana, starting Thursday at 6 p.m. MST at Hi Corbett Field.