SCOTTSDALE—With a resume that isn’t even sniffing the bubble, at least based on college baseball experts, Arizona’s mindset entering the Pac-12 Tournament was simple: just keep winning.
So far, so good.
The Wildcats jumped out early against ASU and never let up, rolling to a 12-3 win over their rivals in the first game of Pool A on Tuesday afternoon at Scottsdale Stadium. Eighth-seeded Arizona (31-23) will face No. 2 Oregon State (39-16) on Wednesday morning, and a win would advance it to Friday’s semifinals and move it closer to NCAA Tournament consideration.
“To put it simply, we’re in the playoffs right now,” UA coach Chip Hale said. “This is our regional. Our message was, just let’s play the first inning. That’s it. That’s all we can worry about is just win the first inning and just keep winning.”
Arizona scored four runs in the top off the first off ASU right-hander Josh Hansell, the first of seven pitchers the Sun Devils (31-23) trotted out with none of their weekend starters available. Nik McClaughry got the scoring started with a solo home run, pairing nicely with the Pac-12 Defensive Player of Year award he received earlier in the day.
Emilio Corona added a 2-run triple and Mason White drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, giving UA righty Aiden May “all the cushion in the world” to go on the offensive against ASU’s hitters. The Sun Devils tagged him for six runs and 10 hits, including three homers, in late March, but this time out May retired the first six and faced the minimum over the first three.
“I didn’t need to pitch defensively,” said May, who allowed a run on four hits over six to improve to 5-5. “I just found my groove and I started going with it.”
The UA led 9-0 after a 4-run fourth, the big at-bat a 3-run double from Chase Davis that came after four of the previous five Wildcats walked. Arizona drew a season-high 10 walks, eight in the first four innings.
“You’re always gonna get a hit or two an inning, with aluminum bats, hard ground like we have here,” Hale said. “It’s what you do with the other at-bats, now you put those two free guys on, they’re gonna probably score.”
May had his first trouble in the bottom of the fifth when, with one out he allowed back-to-back singles and then a 4-pitch walk. That prompted a visit from pitching coach Dave Lawn, and a trainer, as May had developed a calf cramp the previous inning.
He escaped the jam with a strikeout and a groundout but allowed two more walks and an RBI single in the sixth.
Arizona took a 12-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh, putting the tourney’s 10-run rule in play. But lefty Bradon Zastrow, who started the second game of Friday’s doubleheader win over USC and went five innings, allowed three straight hits after coming on in relief.
ASU scored twice in that frame to stave off the mercy rule, about the only thing that didn’t go well for Arizona.
“Great at-bats, I thought, the whole game,” Hale said. “Hit the ball hard or walked, really saw a lot of pitches, which kind of keys our offense.”
Eight of Arizona’s nine batters had at least one hit including No. 9 hitter Garen Caulfield, who got the start at DH after getting only one at-bat last weekend. Caulfield responded by going 2 for 5 with a homer and two RBI, the second coming via a safety squeeze in the seventh that put the Wildcats up 10.
“I was trying to help the team win anyway I can,” Caulfield said. “I had an at-bat earlier in the game where I think I could have gotten a bunt down to get it to 7-0 if we converted it. I just told them I can do it, and if you have confidence in me I’ll do it.”
Hale said he picked Caulfield because of his good at-bats this season against ASU, including a homer in the road series and three runs scored in the 20-0 win over the Sun Devils in Tucson last month. Caulfield also apparently loves the Pac-12 Tournament, having hit in all five games the past two seasons, and is 7 for 15 with two homers and five RBI in the tourney.
ASU won the overall season series with Arizona, 3-2, sweeping the games that counted toward the conference record. But the Wildcats outscored the Sun Devils 35-3 over the last 20 innings.
Now comes another opponent that swept the UA on the road, Oregon State, though two of those games saw the Wildcats take a lead into the bottom of the ninth before getting walked off. The opener of that series saw righty Cam Walty, set to start Wednesday, throw seven scoreless innings.