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Arizona baseball opens fall exhibition slate with tie vs. Mexican pro team

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When Arizona played in the Mexican Baseball Fiesta a year ago, it marked the unofficial coaching debut of Chip Hale. That 10-3 loss to Yaquis de Obregon also came during the first week of fall practice.

This time around, the Wildcats had been in fall ball for a few weeks before taking on another team from the Mexican Pacific League, Naranjeros de Hermosillo. And as a result, the UA squad that played a professional club to a 6-6 tie on Thursday night looked a lot like the one that was on the field in the NCAA Tournament four months ago in Miami.

Seven of the nine position players who started were regulars a year ago, the same with six of seven pitchers used. That contrasts to the 2021 Fiesta game that saw only three regulars in the batting order and all the arms being newcomers.

“We’re a lot farther along in the fall, we started earlier this year,” Hale said. “Our pitchers are stretched out. We want to get a good look at these guys.”

Rotation candidates TJ Nichols, Dawson Netz, Tonko Susac and Eric Orloff threw the first seven innings, and veteran relievers Chris Barraza and Trevor Long also pitched. The only new pitcher used was 6-foot-6 righty Derek Drees, a graduate transfer from Butler.

Among hitters, the two newcomers to start were both local products. Kiko Romero, who played at Canyon del Oro High School before starring at JUCO national champion Central Arizona, was at first base while Salpointe Catholic grad Mason White was at DH before moving to shortstop. Xavier Esquer, the son of Stanford coach Mark Esquer, came in as a defensive replacement at second base late in the game.

Romero was 1 for 4 with an RBI single and a stole base, while White had two hits and scored two runs from the No. 9 spot.

Hale said most of Arizona’s young players have gotten plenty of experience during instraquad games—“we play three or four a week”—but for an exhibition like this he wanted to go with the ones that, at least as of now, are most likely to be starting when the real games start in February.

“The young guys are playing, they’re playing their tails off,” Hale said. “We said the first day of our meetings, I said, ‘hey, doesn’t matter if you’ve have played one game in college or you played here and been in college for six years, the best player is going to play.’

The UA built a 6-2 lead after four innings thanks to a pair of 3-run frames. Tony Bullard’s 2-run double put the Wildcats up 3-2 in the third, and Chase Davis had a 2-run double in the fourth after Nik McClaughry drove in a run with a double.

But the Wildcats couldn’t hang onto the lead mostly because of some misplays in the field. A throwing error by Bullard with two outs in the eighth kept the door open for Hermosillo, which scored three unearned runs after that.

Arizona plays two more fall exhibitions, Oct. 15 against Pima College and Oct. 22 against UNLV, both at Hi Corbett Field. Hale expects two players who missed the Hermosillo game with injuries, catcher Tommy Splaine and outfielder Emilio Corona, to be back for those contests.

Splaine is dealing with a sprained wrist while Corona, who came from Pima after starting his career at Washington, has a hamstring issue. Hale said both would have played Thursday.