SCOTTSDALE—With the prospect of needing to beat the top-seeded team twice in one day just to make the championship game, Arizona could have easily gone through the motions and been content with a 2-2 record in the Pac-12 Tournament.
But that’s not how Chip Hale coaches, or his Wildcats play.
Arizona scored twice in the ninth inning and had the go-ahead run on base before falling 5-4 to Stanford on Saturday afternoon at Scottsdale Stadium. The loss eliminated the fifth-seeded Wildcats (37-23) in what was effectively the tourney semifinals, while the Cardinal (40-14) will take on either No. 2 Oregon State or No. 3 UCLA in Sunday night’s title game.
The UA led briefly, going up 3-2 in the third despite losing cleanup hitter Chase Davis to a shoulder injury two innings earlier. Davis slammed his left (throwing) shoulder into the padded wall as he extended to make a catch in left field, staying in the game for the remainder of the inning, but Tyler Casagrande pinch hit for him in the top of the second and took over in left.
“He couldn’t swing,” Hale said of Davis, who leads Arizona in home runs (16) and walks (46). “We’ll see how he feels in the next couple of days.”
Losing Davis completely changed the makeup of the UA lineup. Casagrande went 1-2 for with a single, a walk and a sacrifice bunt, but his foul pop out behind third base ended the game.
Stanford took a 1-0 lead in the first via back-to-back walks, a groundout and a sacrifice fly the led to Davis’ injury. UA starter Tonko Susac walked the first batter on four pitches, the fourth time in his last five starts he’s done that, and ended up walking four in two-plus innings.
“We’re fine if we don’t walk guys,” Hale said. “The thing with Tonko is he’s just got to start throwing those strikes early in the game. Those walks end up scoring. He has tremendous movement on his ball, and I think some of it is anxiety. It’s hard to pitch as a freshman in this conference. And he’s learning the hard way.”
Arizona took the lead in the third via consecutive 1-out hits by Mac Bingham, Nik McClaughry and Daniel Susac, who was 2 for 5 with an RBI less than a day after having to leave the win over ASU due to illness (but not before hitting a 3-run home run). But Stanford went back ahead for good in the bottom of the inning when Tonko Susac walked leadoff man Brock Jones and followed that by yielding a deep 2-run homer to left-center to Carter Graham, the only hit he allowed.
The Cardinal added insurance runs in the fifth and eighth, the first on a pair defensive miscues. Reliever Javyn Pimental, who struck out four over 2.1 innings, didn’t get over to first quick enough on a grounder to Noah Turley that Turley also softly lobbed to Pimental, then Tony Bullard double-clutched on a grounder and threw offline to first, putting a runner on third for Braden Montgomery to single home.
“I think that game right there showed how, when you play a really good team you can’t make any mistakes,” McClaughry said. “We made a couple mistakes, didn’t hit the ball very well with runners in scoring position and that’ll cost you, so I think we can learn from that. And going into the regionals, I think that’s important.”
Stanford’s run in the eighth came via a double and single to lead off Chris Barraza’, the only hits he allowed over three frames.
Arizona’s bullpen, which gave up eight runs and 11 hits in Thursday’s 15-8 loss to Stanford, allowed one earned run and five hits with two walks and six strikeouts over six innings on Saturday. The UA’s relievers helped hold the Cardinal to their fewest runs (tied) and hits during their 15-game win streak.
“I thought they played their tails off, they just got beat up by that team,” Hale said. “The pitching staff came back and did a heck of a job.”
In the ninth, Arizona quickly got a run thanks to a Turley leadoff single and a liner by Tommy Splaine that hit the chalk down the left field line and drove in Turley. Splaine was credited with a triple despite Stanford left fielder Eddie Park making a bad throw in that allowed Splaine to get to third, and Bingham’s fly ball to left plated Splaine to get Arizona within 5-4.
After McClaughry grounded to short for the second out, Daniel Susac singled up the middle for his 31st multi-hit game of 2022 to move into a tie for seventh on the school single-season list. Cameron LaLiberte ran for him and advanced to a second on a balk called against Stanford closer Quinn Mathews.
That prompted Stanford to intentionally walk Tanner O’Tremba, bringing Casagrande to the plate. Hale said he stuck with the left-handed hitting Casagrande instead of pinch-hitting with right-handed Blake Paugh because of Mathews, a southpaw who he said is better against righties than lefties.
“The reason why we play Blake a lot against guys like (Oregon State’s Cooper) Hjerpe and guys like that is they are going to throw hard fastballs at him,” Hale said. “This guy’s a changeup, changeup machine, those are just tough pitches on Blake, and Casa had the good at-bat earlier (against Mathews), he got the walk.”
Had Arizona managed to beat Stanford, forcing a second game later Saturday, freshman lefty Eric Orloff figured to start. But for how long, and who would come after him, was a major concern. Instead, the Wildcats can get everyone fresh for the NCAA Tournament.
“Pitching was was gonna be tough to find,” Hale said. “To win the regionals, we’re gonna have to really play good baseball and we can’t get that deep into the bullpen. We just don’t have enough guys.”
As for being in the NCAA field, Hale had no doubt Arizona’s name would get called during Monday’s 9 a.m. PT selection show.
“I feel great,” he said. “We won two (tourney games), our losses are against one of the top teams in the country. We played them pretty tough. Obviously the other day was a little out of hand, but today I thought was a very well-played game.”