It wasn’t a Pac-12 game. No matter what happened Sunday, Arizona was still going to be in a tie for 8th place in the conference with two weekends left in the regular season.
Don’t tell the Wildcats that.
Pinch hitter Tyler Casagrande’s sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth inning scored Mason White, who had tied the game earlier with his fourth hit of the game, giving the UA an 11-10 walkoff win over Air Force at Hi Corbett Field.
Arizona (25-20) rallied from down 3-plus runs twice to clinch the nonconference series, one that saw it score 27 runs in its two wins and manage just two hits in Saturday’s 5-0 loss to the Falcons (23-26). Head coach Chip Hale said his team wasn’t prepared for the previous game, but while the preparation was much better for the finale he saw many examples of a struggling team that’s pressing.
“We’re just trying too hard,” Hale said. “Whether it’s a pitcher making a perfect pitch, whether it’s guys trying to make something happen.”
Hale was mostly referring to a pair of baserunning mistakes that ended potential rallies. Garen Caulfield was gunned down at third trying to get an extra base on a 2-out Nik McClaughry single in the fourth, while Kiko Romero was thrown out at second trying to tag on a fly ball in the sixth. The Wildcats were down 7-3 and 9-8, respectively, in those situations.
“The scoreboard tells you how aggressive you should be on base,” Hale said. “And when you’re down like that you don’t want to (do that). You don’t ever want to give way outs in our ballpark on a day game when the wind is blowing like it is.”
The UA went up 3-0 in the bottom of the first, doubling its hit total from the night before en route to 18 for the afternoon. But Air Force scored twice in the second and five more in the fourth off starter Aiden May, who allowed 10 hits.
Arizona got within 7-6 in the fifth on a Corona RBI single and a 2-run home run from Tony Bullard, who drove in three overall. Bullard has career highs in homers (eight) and RBI (32) this season.
The Falcons scored three in the top of the sixth off TJ Nichols, who after going 1-2-3 in the fifth fell into the pitching pattern that dropped him from the rotation: walk, groundout, hit by pitch on a back-foot slider to a left-handed hitter, wild pitch, double, wild pitch, walk. Freshman Jackson Kent came in to clean up the mess and then threw a scoreless seventh, starting a run of three straight relievers who didn’t allow a run.
It wasn’t completely smooth sailing, though. Dawson Netz loaded the bases with one out in the eighth on a walk and two singles, one to a pinch hitter batting .176, before getting a foul popout and a strikeout looking to record his sixth straight scoreless outing. Then Chris Barraza, who got the decision in both walkoff losses last weekend at Oregon State, walked the first batter he faced but then retired the next three including a strikeout looking to end the top of the ninth with a runner on second.
Along the way, Arizona chipped at Air Force’s lead. It scored twice in the sixth on a double by Chase Davis, who had three two-baggers, and a single run in the seventh.
The bottom of the ninth saw Corona double with one out, then White—who was a homer short of the cycle—laced his second double of the game to bring in the tying run. After Bullard was intentionally walked and Caulfield reached on an infield single to load the bases, Casagrande batted for Cameron LaLiberte with one simple task.
“The first pitch that is anywhere near the strike zone, just put it in play,” said Casagrande, a 5th-year senior whose 22 RBI in 2023 match his total from his first four seasons. “It would have been pretty hard to not get that run in, let’s put it that way, especially against a pitcher throwing 85-86.”
On a 2-1 count, Caulfield sent one in the air to left-center, more than deep enough to score White.
It was the fourth game in the last seven for Arizona that involved a walkoff, though the two in Corvallis and Tuesday’s 12-inning loss at Grand Canyon were at the Wildcats’ expense. The UA blew late leads in the two OSU games and have dropped several games this season when tied or leading in the seventh or later, but this was its fourth win when trailing or tied after seven.
“As many games we’ve come back (in) and then given up runs, it would be very easy for them to (give up,” Hale said. “But to a man they said to me, and said each other, we’re going to go, as they say, ‘balls to the wall’ for the rest a year. And they did.”
Arizona completes this homestand Wednesday against Nevada before heading out on its final road trip to first-place Stanford—which just swept ASU on the road—and UC-Irvine. The Wildcats then end the regular season at home against USC before playing in the Pac-12 Tournament in Scottsdale.