CORAL GABLES, Fla.—There was no time to dwell on the last loss. Heck, there was hardly enough time for sleep after playing past 1 a.m. local time on Saturday night.
But less than 10 hours after dropping the NCAA Tournament opener to Ole Miss, pushing it into loser’s bracket, Arizona was back at Alex Rodriguez Park with one goal in mind: keep the season alive.
The Wildcats did just that, building a 6-1 lead and then holding on for a 7-5 win over Canisius on Sunday morning. The UA (38-24) will play later Sunday against the Miami/Ole Miss loser, needing to win that one and then two more on Monday to advance out of the Coral Gables Regional.
“Very proud of our team for coming out after not getting much sleep, and just being tough and battling and doing whatever it took to win the game,” UA coach Chip Hale said. “I think we started off strong, the guys were excited, the bench was excited. We got some runs early and that helps to get the energy going. The whole key was just keeping it going. We just had to keep kind of pumping them, because you just never stop sweating.”
All seven of Arizona’s runs came via four home runs, including two solo shots by designated hitter Blake Paugh. The senior, making just his 17th start in an injury-plagued season, tripled his homer total for the year with blasts in the second and seventh innings.
The first gave the UA a 3-0 lead, the second an insurance run to make it 7-5 after Canisius (29-25) had scored twice in the bottom of the sixth to get within one.
“We had a good feeling, (hitting coach) Toby (DeMello) had a good feeling that he was gonna pop one, and look he popped two,” Hale said.
Paugh started Arizona’s first seven games this season but then missed nearly two months with an oblique injury. It was the second year in a row he’s gotten hurt and missed a significant amount of time.
“It started off good and then yeah, injuries suck,” he said. “I was eager to get back to work and I feel like it’s done good and I just trusted the process and I was glad to get in there today. You gotta come to the field ready to play, ready for your number to be called, day in and day out. I feel like we have a ton of guys we could put in the DH spot and do pretty well.”
Arizona’s other homers were a 2-run shot by Chase Davis in the first, his second in as many regional games and 19th of the season, and a 3-run blast by Nik McClaughry in the fourth that made it 6-1.
McClaughry also led the game off with a walk, scoring on Davis’ homer, a night after he and teammate Noah Turley wore golden sombreros by going 0 for 4 with four strikeouts.
“I have a pretty good process, once I leave the field that game is done,” McClaughry said. “I feel like I do a pretty good job of having a routine after every game, no matter if I did good or bad. So I’ll go through that now and be ready to play tonight.”
Just as big as his homer was McClaughry’s critical defensive play to end the fifth, starting an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play with the bases loaded despite falling backwards as he threw the ball between his legs to second baseman Garen Caulfield.
“You don’t really think when that happens,” he said. “All I remember is, the ball was hit pretty hard so I had to take a step back. I just remember throwing it and hopefully I threw it right to second, if not it might have gone into right.”
TJ Nichols got the win despite five stressful innings. He allowed three runs and five hits with four strikeouts but also walked two, hit three batters, had two wild pitches and was called for a balk. Eric Orloff followed, giving up two runs in two-thirds of an innings.
Nichols and Orloff combined to allow the leadoff man to reach four times in six innings, two on free passes, and those two ended up scoring.
“It’s not the hits, it’s the walks and the hit batsman and the stuff like that and end up getting you into big trouble in college baseball,” Hale sad. “We can handle the hits.”
The last two Arizona relievers, George Arias Jr. and Quinn Flanagan, were a different story. Arias inherited the tying run on second with two out in the sixth and caught Canisius’ Mike Steffan looking, then struck out the side in the seventh.
Arias ended up going two innings, leaving a man on second with two out in the eighth, then Flanagan needed just 13 pitches to get the final four batters for his first save in his 33rd appearance of the season.
Hale said Flanagan, who also appeared in the 7-4 loss to Ole Miss but only threw one pitch, could be available for Arizona’s second game on Sunday.
“I think everything’s possible at this point,” he said. “Like I said, it’s tough guy time.”
Sophomore righty Dawson Netz will start the night game, but beyond that Hale made no promises. The Wildcats won’t know if they’re the home and visiting team until a coin flip is done after Miami and Ole Miss are done.
“We have no idea what we’re gonna wear tonight,” he said.