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Bottom of lineup paces Arizona to comeback win over Grand Canyon in NCAA tournament opener

arizona-wildcats-college-baseball-ncaa-tournament-gcu-antelopes-recap-hi-corbett-2021 Arizona Athletics

The top of Arizona’s batting lineup consists of five players who earned all-conference accolades this week, including a pair of Collegiate Baseball All-Americans.

But as important as those hitters have been to the Wildcats’ huge season, the less-heralded guys at the bottom of the order have been just as integral, never more so than on Friday night.

Arizona’s bottom four spots combined for 10 of its 17 hits in a 12-6 come-from-behind win over Grand Canyon in the opening round of the NCAA Baseball Tournament at Hi Corbett Field.

The Wildcats (41-15) move into the Tucson Regional semifinal, where it will face UC Santa Barbara at 7 p.m. PT Saturday. UCSB (40-18) crushed Oklahoma State 14-4 in Friday’s first game.

A crowd of 5,434 saw the UA fall behind 4-0 after 1.5 innings before it slowly chipped away at the deficit mostly due to those bottom-of-the-order bats. Tony Bullard, Ryan Holgate, Tanner O’Tremba and Nik McClaughry drove in seven runs, scored five of the first six runs and produced the biggest hits, including the go-ahead 2-run home run by O’Tremba in the bottom of the sixth to put the Wildcats up 6-4.

O’Tremba, a Texas Tech transfer (and the only guy on the UA roster who had played in a postseason game) who hadn’t started since April 18 and who had been hitless in his previous 12 at-bats coming in, started in left field and went 3 for 4. UA coach Jay Johnson said he had a “gut feeling” on Wednesday that O’Tremba would be his left fielder on Friday.

“I believe in Tanner, he’s a great player,” Johnson said. “I brought him here because I knew he’d make a significant contribution to our team. It was awesome to see him compete the way he did tonight.”

Bullard, the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week, went 3 for 5 with 3 RBI including a solo homer in the third for Arizona’s first run, as well an RBI single in the third and an RBI triple in the seventh that made it 7-4.

Arizona first five runs came off GCU ace Pierson Ohl, who was 10-1 and had allowed only six runs in the previous 37 innings since April 21.

“I think he just wasn’t as sharp,” GCU coach Andy Stankiewicz said of Ohl, whose nine hits allowed were the most since late March. “His breaking ball wasn’t as crisp. If you leave the ball up against the ballclub you’re gonna get hit.”

Arizona’s top half provided the bulk of the late scoring, with the Wildcats putting things away via a 5-run eighth that included a pair of bases-loaded walks. The UA had not drawn a walk in the previous 16 innings before getting four free passes in the eighth.

UA starter Chase Silseth lasted only one batter into the fourth, a leadoff double, before getting pulled for freshman lefty Riley Cooper. Silseth allowed four runs and nine hits, going to two strikes on 10 of the 18 batters he faced but giving up four hits in those situations.

Grand Canyon (39-20-1) scored twice each in the first and second, getting its sizable contingent of the crowd invested early. The Antelopes could have gotten a bigger lead had Williams not made a diving catch in right-center field to end the second, after which Arizona got its offense going.

“Huge play,” Johnson said. “You wanted to keep it at four especially with a quality pitcher like Ohl tonight. He was the Jim Thorpe Award winner on that play.”

Williams, who in addition to being all-conference was a member of the Pac-12’s All-Defensive Team, said he didn’t think his catch was particularly pivotal to the outcome.

“I thought we were good the whole time,” he said. “We’ve had plenty of games like that. We’ll always find a way to put runs on the board, make pitches and stuff like that. If I didn’t catch that I don’t think the game turns out any differently. I think we do something to dugout to get our energy up. I wouldn’t say that catch turned the game around, honestly.”

After Silseth was pulled GCU only managed two hits over the next four innings, allowing Arizona to chip away at the deficit. Cooper allowed one single in his two innings, then freshman righty TJ Nichols threw the next two scoreless frames and worked into the seventh to improve to 5-3.

Nichols left after yielding a 1-out double in the eighth, a run that would come home after lefty Gil Luna back-to-back 2-out hits to pull GCU within 7-6. Luna induced a fly out with the tying run on second, then after Arizona plated five in the bottom of the inning Dawson Netz needed 10 pitches to finish things off in the ninth.

Arizona did not walk a batter, the first time that’s happened since May 2019 when Avery Weems threw a 130-pitch complete game against Sam Houston State in which he allowed seven runs.

The UA will be facing a very different opponent in UCSB, which had a season-high 18 hits but also played a small-ball approach that was heavy on putting runners in motion and getting defenders out of position. The Gauchos have won nine in a row.

“We’re familiar with them, we’ve been working on them all week,” Johnson said. “They do a good job of executing. They put a lot of pressure on Oklahoma State today, and that’s their game. They’re playing as a really confident team right now.”