After having to pull Garrett Irvin from his final regular-season start after only 2.2 innings, Arizona coach Jay Johnson said he was actually happy he got the left-hander out as early as he did.
“It can serve as a little bit of a breather,” Johnson would say.
Turns out Irvin made the most of that extra rest on his arm, tossing a 3-hitter in the Wildcats’ 4-0 win over UC Santa Barbara in the NCAA regionals on Saturday night in front of 4,127 fans at Hi Corbett Field.
Arizona (42-15) moves on to the regional final, set for 6 p.m. PT Sunday, where it will face the winner of Sunday’s noon game between UCSB and Oklahoma State.
Irvin (6-2) struck out a career-high 10 and did not walk a batter for the first time this season, facing only three over the minimum in a 111-pitch performance. It was his second complete game of the year and was the first in the postseason by a UA pitcher since JC Cloney shut out Coastal Carolina in Game 1 of the 2016 College World Series championship series.
“It was an unbelievable performance by Garrett; very believable to me,” Johnson said. “He threw every pitch exactly where he wanted to, so the command was special. It was no doubt in my opinion that he would pitch well, but to execute like that, I think, shows toughness and his strength in mindset, and our team really fed off that.”
While Arizona made UCSB starter Michael McGreevy labor, with the first 15 batters seeing three or more pitches, Irvin went to a 3-ball count on only four Gaucho hitters. The only threat he faced came in the bottom of the fifth—UCSB was the designated home team—when Christian Kirtley and Jason Willow singled with 1 out, but Irvin responded with a strike out and then left fielder Tanner O’Tremba chased down a foul ball down the left field line before crashing into the low fence.
That started a run of 12 consecutive Gauchos retired—including a 4-pitch seventh inning—before UCSB got a man on with one out in the ninth on a Bullard throwing error. Irvin would fan the last two batters on three pitches, as he did for the first out of the ninth, recording his last four outs via strikeout.
“As you get more fatigued they get more aggressive as hitters,” said Irvin, who hadn’t struck out more than six in a game this season. “You can tell the hitters are getting frustrated and you know they’re going to be swinging early to try not to strike out.”
Irvin’s gem coincided with the Wildcats having a fairly off night at the plate, at least in terms of clutch hits.
Arizona scored single runs in the top of the first and third on 2-out singles by Daniel Susac and Branden Boissiere, but then squandered scoring chances in the next three innings. Two batters struck out with runners on second and third in the fourth, while in the sixth the first two Wildcats reached only to see UCSB’s McGreevy get a strikeout and a double play.
While Arizona’s offense wasn’t as explosive as normal during the first six frames, its patience did get McGreevy out after six innings and 118 pitches. Johnson said he wanted to make it difficult for the UCSB pitcher, and that what the Wildcats did was not chase anything out of the zone.
“The first time through the order they didn’t swing at a first-pitch strike,” UCSB coach Andrew Checketts said.
Lefty Carter Benbrook, the Gauchos’ top reliever, had a fairly easy seventh but then Arizona jumped all over him in the eighth. Kobe Kato beat out a grounder to the first baseman, who was playing back, to lead things off, then on the next pitch Tony Bullard blasted a 2-run home run to make it 4-0.
It was the second homer in as many games and fourth in the last four for Bullard, who was 3 for 4 and is 6 for 9 in the series and has raised his average from .242 to .302 in the past two weekends.
“I feel like I’m just using my legs more,” Bullard said. “I feel like my stance now is a lot lower than it previously was.”
Now Arizona sits back and waits to see who it will face on Sunday night, knowing either UCSB or Oklahoma State would have to beat the Wildcats twice (including on Monday) to win the regional. Johnson said he has no preference.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s about us, it’s about our play, it’s about our mindset, it’s about our ability to stay present and stay focused on the task at hand. We’re going to go to work on both opponents. Take some things about Santa Barbara, take some things we’ve learned watching Oklahoma State. We’ll put together a good plan and be ready to go.”