SCOTTSDALE--If you ride a rollercoaster long enough, you begin to anticipate the scary parts and they become a lot easier to deal with.
Kiko Romero singled home Nik McClaughry in the bottom of the ninth, giving Arizona a 13-12 win over Oregon State in the Pac-12 Tournament on Wednesday afternoon at Scottsdale Stadium. The eighth-seeded Wildcats (32-23) won Pool A with a 2-0 record, advancing to Friday’s semifinals, while furthering their case to earn a spot in the NCAA tourney.
Arizona avenged a pair of walkoff losses to the second-seeded Beavers (39-17) late last month by rallying from an early 4-run hole to eventually take a 4-run lead after six, only to give up the lead in the eighth.
In other words, a very 2023 Arizona game.
“I mean, that’s who we’ve been all year,” UA coach Chip Hale said. “We’ve had some absolutely gut-wrenching losses, especially to this team. And they just kept battling. I was just glad we had the last at-bat.”
Arizona was in position to walk it off thanks to a masterful escape act by Chris Barraza, who stranded two runners in scoring position to end the eighth and then had the go-ahead run at third with no out in the ninth. But the fifth-year senior right-hander, who entered the day with a 7.30 ERA and who had given up 11 runs over his previous six outings, got a lineout and then back-to-back strikeouts to keep OSU from going ahead.
“He’s the one who took the brunt of it up in Corvallis,” Hale said. “To come back and get those strikeouts it just unbelievable. I’m very proud of him.”
In the bottom of the ninth, Mac Bingham singled to center with one out, then Nik McClaughry flared one to right to move Bingham to third. Chase Davis, who hit his 20th home run of the season back in the first inning, hit a low liner to second that OSU’s Travis Bazzana—playing back—snared on a hop, spun, and then fired home to easily get Bingham at the plate.
Hale said that Bingham should have gone back to third after initially holding up to see if the ball was caught, but he understands the predicament his center fielder was in.
“He reads that the second baseman was gonna catch the ball, which is fine,” Hale said. “I’ve coached third long enough to know that it looks different there than it did in my spot (in the dugout). But once you see that, now you just hold up and go back to third. Bazzana made an unbelievable, big league play right there. That was phenomenal. Once you see him wheel it and you you’re halfway, just go back. Now we got bases loaded.”
Instead, Romero came up with runners on 2nd and 3rd with two out. He also had two in scoring position in the sixth, down 8-6, when he parked a 3-run homer in the cantina beyond right field to give Arizona its first lead.
Against OSU closer Ryan Brown, though, he was just trying to put the ball in play.
“I kind of thought they’re gonna pitch around me a little bit, and he did a little bit, but as soon as he got 3-0 he kind of came right at me,” said Romero, who drove in four to give him 84 for the season, tied for second-most in school history and two behind Ron Hassey’s record from 1974. “So I was kind of just staying middle away trying not to pull anything and so it just kind of worked out.”
Arizona had 20 hits for the fourth time this season, and it needed almost every one of them as OSU jumped out to a 4-0 lead on starter Cam Walty. Walty had shut the Beavers out over seven innings on April 28, but this time he lasted only three and allowed six runs.
The Wildcats scored in every inning from the first to sixth but couldn’t tie it or go ahead until putting up a 6-spot in the sixth to lead 12-8. They led by five after six innings on April 30 at OSU, only to lose 11-10, and it didn’t take long for the Beavers to erase that margin.
If today happens to be the first time you've watched Arizona baseball this season, you've actually watched the entire season of Arizona baseball— AZ Desert Swarm (@AZDesertSwarm) May 24, 2023
OSU scored twice in the seventh and twice in the eighth to tie it at 12, and it was hard not to think this was going to be another missed opportunity in a season full of them. Hale said there was some frustration in the dugout—“everyone wants to be the guy”—along the way, but McClaughry said he and his teammates had been through this same scenario so often they knew how to get through it.
“You got to try to slow yourself down in big moments,” McClaughry said. “It’s easy to be in control of yourself in the first inning, but it’s important to be in control yourself in the ninth inning. I was telling Barraza that when he was on the mound. I was like, just slow yourself down, have fun, and you got this. That’s all you gotta do. You gotta take a deep breath and get to the next pitch.”
McClaughry was 4 for 5, scoring three runs including the winning one. On Tuesday he was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, but he said he was more proud of making the all-conference team.
Said Romero: “He’s the sparkplug for this team. He has a fiery little attitude. He just lights us up every time. He gets in big spots when we need them.”
Arizona now gets a much-needed day off as it aways its semifinal opponent. As the lowest seed to advance (No. 9 Cal was eliminated after losing its opener Tuesday) the Wildcats will play the highest seed to make the semis unless it’s OSU, since teams from the same pool cannot meet until the title game.
Top-seeded Stanford, whom Arizona beat 21-20 in 10 innings to avoid a road sweep two weeks ago, would be the UA’s opponent if it wins tonight against Cal (or goes 1-1 in Pool C). If the Cardinal go 0-2 the Wildcats would play the Pool B winner, either No. 3 Washington or No. 4 USC, teams they took two of three from at home this season.
Before the Pac-12 tourney, Hale said he thought making the final four could be enough to get Arizona an at-large NCAA bid. Now that it’s happened?
“We still have some work to do,” he said. “We want to win this tournament, that’s what we came here to do.”