Arizona Wildcats baseball head coach Jay Johnson had a head start preparing for Grand Canyon, the UA’s opening night opponent of the Tucson Regional.
The reason for Johnson’s early preparation wasn’t a result of Arizona having played GCU twice already this season so much as geographical logic.
As soon as GCU won the WAC Tournament last Saturday night to clinch its spot in the postseason, Johnson knew the Lopes would be heading to Tucson “because that’s how the NCAA Tournament goes and unfolds regionally.”
Regular season familiarity only extends so far in the NCAA Tournament, which is why Johnson isn’t placing much weight on the two previous meetings between the teams.
GCU, which is making its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance, beat Arizona on a 10th inning walk-off homer when the two schools met in Phoenix in mid-April. The Lopes held Arizona’s offense mostly in check that night, allowing just four runs.
A few weeks later, the Wildcats struck for 13 runs off six extra base hits in blowout win at Hi Corbett. Both games took place on a Tuesday night. Neither team displayed its best pitchers.
“With their entire team, I’ll go back to the drawing board and start over,” Johnson said.
When the two squads square off for a third time at 7:00 p.m. MST Friday, Arizona will encounter a different starting pitcher than either of the regular season matchups.
GCU will most likely start ace Pierson Ohl, the WAC Pitcher of the Year. A 6-foot-1 righty with a 10-1 record and 2.36 ERA, Ohl has thrown five or more innings in each of his 14 starts and has experience pitching well against Power 5 opponents.
In back-to-back non-conference starts, he threw seven shutout innings against Oregon State and allowed one earned run over seven innings at Oklahoma State.
“He knows he’s a strike thrower who can command a breaking ball and a changeup when he needs to,” said GCU head coach Andy Stankiewicz. “He’s trained himself well. His delivery is clean, it’s repeatable.”
GCU also prides itself on its bullpen, which delivered twice in the WAC Tournament. The Lopes were on the ropes in the first game of the conference tourney, trailing 4-1 to New Mexico State after starting pitcher Carter Young was yanked in the third inning.
GCU rode reliever Nick Hull for 4.2 shutout innings. Frankie Scalzo stamped the save on a 5-4 comeback victory.
In the WAC title game, GCU again fell behind 4-1, this time to UT Rio Grande Valley. Coen Wynne and Connor Markl combined for five innings of shutout relief and Scalzo delivered a 1-2-3 ninth inning to secure the victory.
“I don’t think people understand how good and how well put together we are,” said Scalzo. “You could look at our bullpen core and list the seniors that are there, but we have a bunch of freshmen that we build off, also.”
The key for GCU’s pitching staff Friday night will be limiting free passes and extra base hits to Arizona’s lineup. The Wildcats loaded up for two doubles, two triples and two home runs in their 13-2 win over GCU a month ago.
Five walks and a hit batsman catalyzed Arizona’s scoring that night.
“If you give them free bases, if you don’t play defense real well, you’re going to find yourself in a tough spot,” said Stankiewicz. “You’ve got to minimize the big inning with them. That’s what we did at our place. We made some big pitches, made some nice plays to obviously keep us within earshot of getting a run late to win. Here, we didn’t.”
GCU’s offense is carried by first baseman Elijah Buries, who bats .365 and has 18 extra base hits and 38 RBI. Leadoff shortstop Channy Ortiz leads the team with eight home runs and hit the walk-off homer to beat Arizona in Phoenix.
The Lopes will need timely hitting and a successful night on the mound to be in position to pull an upset Friday.