SCOTTSDALE—Arizona wanted to leave no doubt. Instead, it will have about 36 hours’ worth of uncertainty.
The Wildcats lost 5-4 to Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game on Saturday night at Scottsdale Stadium, putting an end to their Cinderella run in the event as the No. 8 seed.
Had the UA (33-24) won it would have earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Instead, it must hope that its recent play was enough to warrant an at-large selection into the 64-team field, which will be announced Monday at 9 a.m. PT.
“I think anybody watching this game, against this quality team, and the quality teams we played in this tournament, we deserve to be in there, for sure,” UA coach Chip Hale said.
Arizona lost for the fourth time this season to Oregon (37-20) but this matchup was nothing like the first three. The Wildcats were swept at home during the middle of a 10-game conference losing streak when they looked nothing like the team that had won seven of eight entering the final, with every victory over a team projected to make the NCAA tourney.
After scoring 39 runs in the first three Pac-12 games, Arizona found itself in an uncharacteristic pitcher’s duel early on. Oregon starter Turner Spoljaric, who allowed six runs in 1-plus inning on Thursday, limited the Wildcats to three runs over six by getting them to swing early.
Eleven of Arizona’s first 16 batters swung at the first pitch, which wasn’t necessarily the game plan.
“We very rarely get into a situation where we tell our players to take,” Hale said. “I trust them. Other than Mason (White), we have a very veteran hitter hitting group. They’re coached well and they know which pitches to swing at.”
Third baseman Tony Bullard, one of several seniors who may or may not have played his final college game, said Arizona “got big at times” in key spots, which resulted in it going 3 for 17 with runners on base and 2 for 9 with men in scoring position.
“We just tried doing too much in the situation, I think,” he said. “I know I did it a few times. And the last at-bat I made an adjustment and hit the ball well.”
Bullard hit a solo home run with two out in the eighth, getting Arizona within one run. In the ninth the Wildcats got the tying run on when Nik McClaughry dribbled a single through the infield, but Chase Davis—who was named Pac-12 Tournament MVP—flied out to left to end it.
Arizona led 1-0 in the third on a McClaughry RBI single, but Oregon tied it in the bottom of the inning by using its speed to manufacture a run. It was the same deal in the fourth when the Ducks had four hits and stole two bases to go up 3-1.
That all came against UA starter Aiden May, who was pitching on three days’ rest. He went four innings, striking out five and throwing 67 pitches after throwing 84 in Tuesday’s 12-3 win over ASU.
“He gave us everything he had,” Hale said. “He did a really good job.”
Single runs in the fifth and sixth got Arizona even at 3, with the tying run coming in the form of an inside-the-park homer by Kiko Romero.
t was Romero’s 19th homer of the season and gave him 86 RBI, tying Ron Hassey’s single-season school record from 1974.
The tie didn’t last long, though. With one out in the bottom of the sixth, Oregon’s Jacob Walsh crushed a solo homer to right-center off Casey Hintz. The freshman earned the loss but looked great outside of that one pitch, going 2.1 innings, and over his final 13 appearances this season had a 3.44 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 18.1 innings.
“Casey Hintz has become a real force for us out of the bullpen,” Hintz said.
Oregon added an insurance run, which would prove to be the difference, in the seventh against lefty Eric Orloff. Orloff hit the first two batters, then allowed a single to center which scored a run. Mac Bingham’s throw in looked online for a play at the plate but it hit the mound and veered off to the left.
The damage could have been worse had White not made an inning-ending unassisted double play. He caught a line drive and then dove to the bag at second to beat an Oregon runner, who was called safe, but after review the play was overturned.
It was only the seventh time this season Arizona lost a game in which it had allowed five or fewer runs, compared to 19 wins. But it also dropped the Wildcats’ record to 3-19 when scoring six or fewer.
Bullard, who joined Davis, McClaughry and lefty Bradon Zastrow on the all-tournament team, was part of the 2019 UA squad that won 10 in a row and 13 of 14 down the stretch but missed out on an NCAA bid. There wasn’t a Pac-12 tourney that year, preventing the Wildcats from having a chance to play their way in like they hope they did this time.
“I think we’re a really good team, and if someone gives us a chance they’re gonna see,” said Bullard, who said the team plans to gather Monday for the selection show. “Our season’s not over yet. So hopefully, the guys on the committee will let us continue playing.”