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Arizona baseball holds off UC Santa Barbara to win Tucson Regional

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The last time Arizona made the College World Series, in 2016, it did so more or less with only six pitchers contributing to the run.

In getting one step closer to returning to Omaha, the Wildcats turned to that many arms just to survive the final game of the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend.

Chandler Murphy and five relievers collaborated for a 5-2 win over UC Santa Barbara on Sunday night at Hi Corbett Field, sweeping through the Tucson Regional without a blemish.

“We couldn’t have won if each of those guys out of the bullpen didn’t come in and do what they did,” UA coach Jay Johnson said. “This was my kind of ball this weekend, using five or six guys on Friday, using five or six guys today, and you get a standout performance from Garrett (Irvin) in the middle of it. I couldn’t be happier with how that side of the game went this weekend, and to get to Omaha you have to be able to do that.”

The UA (43-15) will host a best-of-3 Super Regional next weekend against either Ole Miss or Southern Miss, who play a second regional final at 10 a.m. PT Monday in Oxford, Miss. This is the Wildcats’ first Super Regional berth since 2016, when they reached the College World Series championship series.

Much like Saturday’s 4-0 win over the Gauchos (40-20) when its normally explosive offense somewhat underachieved, Arizona’s pitching and defense picked up the slack but to a lesser degree. While it could do nothing against Irvin during his 3-hit complete game, UCSB got at least one man on base in all but one inning.

That’s where Arizona’s defense came in. Though it committed a pair of errors, the infield also turned a trio of double plays, including a rare 6-3-5 twin killing to end the fifth when shortstop Nik McClaughry fielded a sharp grounder in the hole, fired to first and then Branden Boissiere threw a dart to Tony Bullard to get a runner trying to go from first to third behind the play.

“I actually believe we’re a better defensive team than our numbers show,” Johnson said.

Arizona never trailed, scoring twice in the bottom of the second inning thanks to three singles and a sacrifice fly. Tanner O’Tremba punched one through the right side to beat the shift and score Kobe Kato with one out, then Ryan Holgate came in on a sac fly by McClaughry.

UCSB got one back in the third on an RBI single by Cole Cummings, who played at nearby Pima College before joining the Gauchos.

Things stayed that way until the sixth when, after Bullard singled with 2-out, Holgate blasted a 2-run home run way over the fence in right field. It was the ninth homer of the season for Holgate, who went 2 for 3 and went 5 for 9 with two RBI and three runs scored in the series.

“It was awesome,” Holgate said of his homer. “Definitely wasn’t as cool as winning this regional.”

UCSB got within 4-2 in the seventh when Arizona needed to use three pitchers. Dawson Netz, who struck out the last batter of the sixth after inheriting a 2-0 count from Randy Abshier, got the first two outs but also hit a batter. Gil Luna faced on batter, Cummings, who reached on a throwing error by Kato, giving the Gauchos runners on the corners with two out.

Arizona’s third pitcher, Preston Price, proceeded to unleash three wild pitches—the first of which scored a run to make it 4-2—and walked a batter before striking out Marcos Castanon to end a high-stress half-inning.

“To get that punchout to end the seventh was a big deal,” Johnson said.

Castanon, who was 9 for 14 with a home run and 10 RBI in the previous three regional games, was 0 for 4 with three strikeouts.

The Wildcats added an insurance run in the eighth on a 2-out single by McClaughry, who had four RBI in the regional.

Arizona’s sixth pitcher, closer Vince Vannelle, gave up a pair of one-out hits but then induced consecutive grounders, both of which Kato made strong plays to get the out, to earn his eighth save of the season and 17th for the team, which is second-most in school history.

Murphy got the win by allowing a run on seven hits with a walk and three strikeouts over the first five, becoming the first UA pitcher to start 7-0 since JC Cloney in 2017. The walk he issued with two outs in the fourth ended a string of 28 consecutive innings (and 108 batters faced) that Arizona pitchers went between free passes, a strong indication of how far the staff has come since 2019 (before Nate Yeskie was hired as pitching coach) when it walked 290 batters in 489.2 innings.

The 2021 Wildcats have walked 225 in 521 innings, while also striking out 545, third-most in school history.

“The leaps that we’ve made are extremely impressive,” Price said.

Johnson said he will “for sure” be watching the Ole Miss/Southern Miss game, and believes doing so live will help “get the pulse” of how those teams play. Much more preparation will go into whoever comes out of that game, he said.

“We go a lot deeper than the one game,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. We’ll be in the weeds tomorrow once that game is over with.”