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Arizona baseball knocks off No. 2 Tennessee to open season

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SCOTTSDALE–One game doesn’t make a season. But if the first is any indication, Arizona has the potential for a pretty special 2023 campaign.

A fully healthy Tony Bullard shined at the plate and in the field and TJ Nichols had arguably the best performance of his college career as the Wildcats beat preseason No. 2 Tennessee 3-1 on Friday night in the MLB Desert Invitational at Salt River Fields.

“I think, when you’re gonna play against a great opponent like that … the guys are gonna be jazzed up,” Arizona coach Chip Hale said.

Arizona scored single runs in the first, second and eighth innings, taking the lead for good on Bullard’s line drive solo home run to left to open the second and then adding some insurance via some 2-out magic in the eighth.

Bullard, who turned 23 on Friday, hit his homer as MLB superstar Juan Soto–invited to the game by Hale, who coached him with the Washington Nationals–was doing a live interview on MLB Network.

“It was a slider that backed up, and I saw it up and was able to put a good swing on it,” Bullard said.

The UA had seven hits, three (including Bullard’s homer) off Tennessee right-hander Chase Dollander, MLB Pipeline’s No. 2 prospect for the 2023 Draft. Dollander struck out six but couldn’t get out of the fifth, while Nichols went six strong for the Wildcats.

“It was a little tough, wasn’t easy for sure,’ said Nichols, who allowed a run on three hits with six strikeouts, a walk and two hit batters.

Nichols allowed a run in the top of the first and five of the first 10 batters reached base. But after a leadoff single in the second the Vols didn’t get another hit off Nichols, who admits that last season it would have been a lot harder for him to work out of trouble.

“I probably didn’t have as much mental toughness as I do now,” he said.

Said Hale: “That’s a Friday night performance.”

Lefty Eric Orloff followed Nichols with 1.2 scoreless innings, then righty Dawson Netz finished the eighth and righty Trevor Long closed it out.

Arizona committed one error, but unlike last season when unearned runs were a huge problem, the miscue didn’t come back to bite the Wildcats. It helped that overall the defense was stellar, highlighted by Bullard’s stab of a hard grounder up the third base line and missile thrown to second.

It was a throw that Bullard wouldn’t have been able to make a year ago, not after spraining the AC joint in his right shoulder the weekend before the 2022 season opener.

“You saw the velocity coming off that arm,” Hale said of Bullard. “He’s 100 percent (healthy), it’s beautiful.”

Arizona tied it at 1 in the bottom of the first on a sacrifice fly by Mac Bingham. Bingham drove in the third run in the eighth with a 2-out double to the gap in left-center right after Kiko Romero reached on a single that fell in front of the Tennessee center fielder.

Arizona continues the 4-day Desert Invitational Saturday at 1 p.m. MT against Fresno State. That game will be at Sloan Park in Mesa.