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NCAA Baseball: Familiar opponent doesn’t matter for Arizona, Ole Miss

arizona-wildcats-college-baseball-ole-miss-rebels-ncaa-preview-coral-gables-regionals-irvin-susac Arizona Athletics

CORAL GABLES, Fla.—That sound you heard when the selection committee matched Arizona and Ole Miss in the first game of the NCAA Tournament was that of dozens of college baseball writers (present company included) pounding away at their keyboards. A narrative had been established, and darned if we weren’t going to push it.

But not surprisingly, players and coaches from both teams on Thursday weren’t interested in dwelling on the fact that the Wildcats eliminated the Rebels in the Super Regionals last June in Tucson.

“I think that’s more of a storyline for you guys,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said, calling it “ironic” that his team opens the NCAA tourney against the one it ended last year’s postseason against.

Ole Miss (32-22) starts eight of the nine hitters who were regulars last season, but it will be throwing a pitcher Arizona hasn’t seen in right-hander Dylan DeLucia. The Wildcats (37-23) will go with lefty Garrett Irvin, who lasted just 1.1 innings and allowed seven runs to the Rebels in a Game 2 Super Regionals loss, but most of the UA’s batting lineup is changed from a year ago.

“In the back of the mind you realize they’re a year different,” Bianco said. “They’re a year better, just like our guys.”

Despite his rough outing against Ole Miss, and a similarly tough one against Stanford in last week’s Pac-12 Tournament in Scottsdale, Arizona is turning to Irvin. He’s been the Wildcats’ most effective starter all season, and in his career the UA is 26-10 in games started by Irvin.

He, for one, is relishing the change to atone for a year ago.

“Of course I have to play Ole Miss again,” Irvin said Tuesday. “Last year they came to us and we beat them two out of three. So you know that’s gonna fuel them, and obviously it fuels me just because the one game we lost was my game, so it’s gonna be very hardfought game.”

Irvin’s outing against Ole Miss came right after his best as a Wildcat, a 3-hit, 10-strikeout complete game shutout of UC Santa Barbara in the regionals.

“I’ve watched both those games, and it’s not like I’m a totally different pitcher,” Irvin said. “That’s what bugs me, because I want to see something like significantly different so I can take that and run with it. But I think half of me says that I kind of maybe just built more confidence, went into supers and was maybe just a little bit too cocky. I think it was a humbling experience for sure. But I think half of it was also was just like the definition of baseball, coming off one of your best games and just immediately having your worst game. So you just got to flush it, which I’m trying to do this week. I’m flushing and trying to focus on Ole Miss. It’s a learning experience.”

The ability to “flush” a bad game, or even a bad inning, is something Irvin is masterful at, UA catcher Daniel Susac says.

“He is really good at beating a team the time (after) they beat him before,” he said. “So I’m confident he’s gonna go back out there and compete for us. They have a couple of lefties in their order, I think four or five, which is going to help him, and he always is better against lefties. He can use his slider a lot more than I’d say to righties. So I think he’s going to do a great job of setting that tone.”

Irvin recalls Ole Miss being aggressive at the plate, and that seems to be the case this season. The Rebels have hit six more home runs in 13 fewer games and also averaging more strikeouts (8.87 per game vs. 8.5).

“I just remember the hitters being very good and they wouldn’t chase a lot but they would just put the bat on the ball,” Irvin said. “So I need to see what I can throw, maybe whether it’s throwing it more in the dirt so I can get strikeouts or maybe it’s just lowering it so I get groundouts.

Susac said slowing down shortstop Jacob Gonzalez, who was 5 for 11 with two home run, four RBI and five runs scored in the 2021 Super Regionals, is key.

“I think Gonzalez is the biggest person we need to figure out on that team,” he said. “I think he did a really good job of setting the tone for them. I think all three games he led off with a hit, at least the first two I know for sure. He’s almost, in my opinion, like ASU’s (Joe) Lampe, you don’t want him on the base paths. So I think he’s a guy that we need to control.”