The scoreboard says Arizona beat North Dakota State in 12 innings because it scored more runs than then opponent. But truth be told, the Wildcats won because their defense prevented the Bison from scoring more than they did.
The Wildcats threw out two NDSU runners on the base paths, including the potential go-ahead run at home in the top of the 11th, while also recording a double play and playing error-free ball for the fifth time in 10 games in a 7-6 extra-inning win on Saturday afternoon at Hi Corbett Field.
“Unbelievable defense,” said UA coach Chip Hale, who was a second baseman for the Wildcats in the mid-1980s as well as in the pros. “We preach it, you win games in many ways.”
Arizona (7-3) won its fourth straight, its first in three tries on Saturday, after trailing by four going into the bottom of the seventh. The Wildcats tied the game at 6 that frame thanks to three walks, an infield single, a sacrifice fly and then a 2-out, 2-run double from Cameron LaLiberte.
LaLiberte was 4 for 6 with three infield singles, including a bunt in the bottom of the 12th that was intended to be a sacrifice but was placed perfectly up the third base line.
“Coach (Dave) Lawn and Chip have talked to me saying I need to use my speed,” said LaLiberte, who said he collected seven or eight bunt hits playing in the Appalachian summer wood bat league.
LaLiberte’s hit moved Kiko Romero to third after Romero led off the 12th with a bloop double that fell between NDSU’s left fielder, shortstop and third baseman. Romero also hit his first home run with Arizona in the 4th, a 439-shot off the batter’s eye in center that put the Wildcats up 2-1 at the time.
Garen Caulfield followed LaLiberte with a first pitch fly ball to right, deep enough for Romero to score on a walk-off sacrifice fly.
“I was just trying to keep it off the ground, and I was just trying to get something done early in the count,” Caulfield said. “I knew he had to come at me, and fortunately I was able to get something in the air.”
Caulfield is hitting .208 with three RBI this season after batting .292 as a freshman, but he’s not worried about the slow start.
“It’s been tough for me going, but I’ve also hit some balls really hard in good situations that haven’t fallen,” he said. “It’s just baseball, man, you just got to stick with it. Show up the next day and give it your all.”
North Dakota State (1-10) tied the game at 2 in the fifth, chasing UA starter Tonko Susac, then went ahead in the sixth with a pair of RBI singles off Jackson Kent. A 2-out, 2-run double off Tony Pluta made it 6-2 in the seventh.
Arizona’s first three batters walked in the bottom of the seventh before Chase Davis beat out a dribbler up the third base line for an RBI infield hit, cutting the deficit to 6-3. After Tony Bullard popped out, Romero brought in a run with a sacrifice fly and then LaLiberte smoked one down the line to tie it.
The UA’s next 11 batters failed to reach before it loaded the bases in the bottom of the 11th with one out via a walk, hit batter and walk. But Davis chased a ball up and out of the zone and then Bullard flew out, sending the game to the 12th.
In the top of the 12th, NDSU got the leadoff man on for the fourth inning in a row, though after a strikeout from Derek Drees he was erased on a 5-4-3 double play started by Bullard. It was the second inning in a row that Bullard’s defense saved the Wildcats.
The Bison had runners on first and second with two out when Cadyn Schwabe hit one into the hole that Bullard got a glove on but it kicked away. He stuck with the play, grabbing the ball with his barehand and firing home where LaLiberte tagged out Jack Steil trying to score from second.
What a play to maintain the tie! #BearDown @tonybullard13 to @Cam_La32 for the play at the plate pic.twitter.com/cwpZ8D0gPZ— Arizona Baseball (@ArizonaBaseball) March 4, 2023
“Those are those are major league plays,” Hale said of Bullard, who was 0 for 6 and is hitting .167 despite five extra-base hits including a homer.
“Tony is not getting any hits, but he’s battling, he’s hitting some high fly balls, and he keeps his head in the game,” Hale said.
Arizona will go for the series sweep Sunday at 10 a.m. MT at Hi Corbett, with left-hander Bradon Zastrow on the mound.