Arizona clinched a share of its first Pac-12 title in nine years last weekend while standing around a cell phone in the outfield of Oregon State’s stadium. It locked up its first outright conference title since 1989 during the latter stages of a disappointing home loss on Friday night, its first at Hi Corbett Field in seven weeks.
So what was there left to play for in the regular-season finale? Plenty, based on the players’ and coaches’ behavior after it ended in dramatic fashion.
Jacob Berry’s double with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning scored Donta’ Williams, giving Arizona a 5-4 walkoff win on Saturday night and providing the spark for a raucous on-field celebration.
After the dugout mobbed Berry near second base—“as soon as I saw (Donta’) score I just blacked out,” Berry said afterward—things morphed into an impromptu ceremony for the Wildcats (40-15) to formally celebrate the Pac-12 title, with commemorative hats and shirts handed out and the team posing for pictures with a banner and trophy. A good helping of the season-high crowd of 2,506 stuck around to be a part of the festivities.
“It was really important to me that we got to do something with our fans,” UA coach Jay Johnson said. “They’ve been a big part of this journey.”
The win gave Arizona 40 wins for the first time since 2007 and improved its record at Hi Corbett to 28-7. The Wildcats will get at least two more games there in the NCAA Tournament as regional hosts, a distinction that will be confirmed Sunday night when the 16 host sites are announced ahead of Monday’s tourney field reveal.
“Book it,” Johnson said when asked if Arizona deserves one of the top eight seeds, with which comes the right to host both regionals and Super Regionals. “There’s no question about it. It’s not even a debate. This program has been to Omaha more times than it’s won 40 games in the regular season. There’s no way that’s not happening.”
A loss to Dixie (24-32) might have severely changed those plans, and things were trending that way early as the Trailblazers went up 4-1 in the third inning and chased UA starter Garrett Irvin from the game.
Irvin, whom Johnson referred to as his “best pitcher” during Friday’s postgame interviews, gave up four runs and six hits with three walks in 2.2 innings, failing to strike out a batter for the first time in 19 career starts with the Wildcats.
“I’m actually happy we took him out of the game,” Johnson said. “The pitch count was the lowest it’s been for a while, so it can almost serve like a little bit of a breather.”
Unlike Friday’s 11-9 loss to Dixie, when Arizona couldn’t battle back after falling behind, the Wildcats slowly chipped away at the deficit. Williams tripled in a run in the fifth to make it 5-2, extending his on-base streak to 41 games in the process, and then came home on a Brande Boissiere single.
Boissiere had singles in his first three at-bats, stringing together eight straight hits and reaching base nine times in a row between Thursday and Saturday. After entering the weekend on a 5-for-42 slump he finished the regular season 9 of 13 with four RBI.
“I think he was in his best character as a hitter,” Johnson said. “This was himself, and if he does that he’s highly effective. We needed him to be that good to win this series.”
Arizona tied it in the sixth on a safety squeeze bunt by Nik McClaughry to score Tony Bullard from third, then went 1-2-3 in the seventh and eighth innings before Williams singled with one out in the ninth. He moved to second on a wild pitch and was halfway to third base, with his hands raised in the air, when Berry launched a ball to deep left that ended up going off Dixie State left fielder Chase Rodriguez’s glove as he leapt at the wall.
The comeback wouldn’t have been possible if not for Arizona’s bullpen, which was shaky on Friday but was lights out in the finale. That started with freshman right-hander TJ Nichols, who allowed one hit with six strikeouts over 4.2 innings, then Vince Vannelle threw the final 1.2 innings without yielding a baserunner.
Vannelle was handed a dicey situation after Nichols attempted to pick off a Dixie runner at first but instead threw it away for a 2-base error, Arizona’s fourth of the game. That was with an 0-2 count, which Vannelle inherited and then proceeded to throw three consecutive balls before inducing a grounder to Bullard that he threw home to get out a Dixie runner, then another Trailblazer runner was gunned out at second by Daniel Susac after trying to advance on a wild pitch.
“We won the game because of that performance,” Johnson said of Nichols, adding that the mid-batter move to Vannelle was based off feel and the need to get a strikeout or a ball on the ground.
Vannelle then struck out all three in the ninth and earned the win to improve to 5-2.