In a game where it seemed like every pitch mattered, it was a play that didn’t involve a pitch that ended up deciding it.
West Virginia’s JJ Wetherholt stole home with two outs in the top of the 11th inning, winning 6-5 to spoil Arizona’s home opener on Friday night at Hi Corbett Field. It was the second year in a row the Wildcats (3-2) have lost their first home game, the first time that’s happened since 1990-91 when they played at Sancet Field on the UA campus.
“The Wetherholt kid just took the game over, he just had great at-bats all night,” Arizona coach Chip Hale said of West Virginia’s shortstop and No. 2 hitter, who was 3 for 6 with two doubles and a 2-run home run. “We played our tails off. The guys played hard, they played hard.”
Wetherholt, who doubled off Trevor Long to lead off the 11th, stole third with one out. Then, on an 0-2 count to Logan Suave, he took off for the plate as Long had his head down as part of his pre-pitch routine.
“He just didn’t see him go,” Hale said of Long, whose throw home once he realized the steal was happening was high and wide of catcher Tommy Splaine. “When you play these different teams and you look at video and you see the things they’ve done, they’ve already done that once this year. We just need to be more aware.”
Extras were needed after Arizona scored twice in the bottom of the eighth to tie it at 5, doing so without a hit and while facing five Mountaineers pitchers. The Wildcats drew four walks, including a bases-loaded free pass to Chase Davis to bring in Nik McClaughry with the tying run, as well as a hit batter and a sacrifice fly.
“I thought the bats were good all night,” Hale said. “We weren’t very happy with our bats up in Scottsdale, to be completely honest. We thought we left a lot out there. I think tonight, other than a few innings )when) we got a little lazy, we hit the ball hard. We got deep in counts. Got some big walks. We saw pretty much everybody in their bullpen tonight.”
Early on it looked like Arizona would win easily, scoring two in the first off West Virginia lefty Ben Hampton. The first four Wildcats reached, then with one out Kiko Romero doubled to right-center with the bases loaded to score the second run, but on the play Garen Caulfield was thrown out at home.
Hale, who coached third base in place of Toby DeMello—who was suspended one game for his ejection (alongside Hale) in Monday’s win over UC-San Diego—said Caulfield didn’t go half way between second and third because he thought the ball might get caught, while Tony Bullard knew it was going to fall in and ended up running Caulfield off of second as he advanced from first.
“What happens in that situation, with one out, the rule of thumb is you get halfway, you get far enough for if the ball drops you can score,” Hale said. “With nobody out you’ll tag and try to get the third with one out, to be in scoring position. Where the mistake was made was Garen didn’t get halfway, he tagged, and then Tony, to compound it, ran him off because Tony knew that was gonna drop. You have to kind of keep your head up and see what other guys are doing. And again, it’s early in the year we’re gonna make some mistakes.”
Westerholt’s homer off TJ Nichols tied the game at 2 in the third, but Arizona scored in the bottom of the inning on an RBI double from Splaine. A 2-out, 2-run single by West Virginia’s Brendan Barry put the Mountaineers up 4-3 in the sixth, chasing Nichols, then they added a run in the 7th before Arizona’s 8th-inning comeback.
As if the game didn’t have enough weird stuff, the ninth inning was a crazy frame all by itself.
West Virginia had the go-ahead runner on third with one out and attempted a safety squeeze bunt, but Romero came charging in from first and caught it on a line, firing back to Mason White at third for a double play. Then, with Bullard at the plate to start the bottom of the ninth, West Virginia coach Randy Mazey had an issue with an automatic ball charged against his pitcher before any were thrown.
Per a West Virginia spokesman, Mazey had attempted to be charged with a mound visit to prevent the automatic ball, was denied, and then spoke with all four umpires (taking at least one into the visiting dugout to view the rule book) before declaring the Mountaineers were playing the game under protest.
Bullard ended up reaching on a fielding error on the next pitch, and later in the 9th Arizona had the winning run on third after Mac Bingham stole second and the throw from home went into center, but Splaine grounded out to send the game to extras.
“I think this was a really good game for us because it was a playoff atmosphere, at least I felt like, because every pitch seemed like it mattered a lot,” said McClaughry, who was 3 for 5 from the leadoff spot. “And I think they just got the best of us. They won a couple more pitches than we did, and I think that’s just how baseball works. That’s why baseball is nice, you get to play tomorrow.”
Game 2 of the 3-game series is set for 3 p.m. MT Saturday. Arizona will sent righty Tonko Susac to the mound.