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NCAA Baseball: Arizona loses opener to TCU, will face Santa Clara in elimination game

Kiko Romero hit 2 home runs and became the UA single-season RBI leader in the loss
Arkansas Athletics

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.—Arizona had to win a bunch of games down the stretch just to get into the NCAA Tournament. Now it cannot lose again this weekend if it wants its season to keep going.

The Wildcats lost 12-4 to TCU on Friday night at Baum-Walker Stadium, falling into the loser’s bracket of the Fayetteville Regional. The UA (33-25) will face Santa Clara at 12 p.m. PT Saturday in an elimination game, a not unfamiliar place for many players on this team.

Arizona lost its first game in Coral Gables last tourney but battled through the loser’s bracket to reach the regional final. For a repeat of that to happen, though, it will need much better starting pitching.

Right-hander Cam Walty, who at one point this season had a 22.1-inning scoreless streak, didn’t retire a batter in the second before getting pulled. He allowed six runs and eight hits, and like many recent starts his biggest problem was the inability to put batters away.

TCU (38-22) was 5 for 7 with a hit by pitch on 2-strike counts against Walty, who threw 34 strikes in 49 pitches but got only one swing and miss. He was given a 2-0 lead out of the gate but agave it up after three batters, as TCU career home run leader Brayden Taylor smoked a 3-run shot (on a 2-strike pitch).

“Two-strike hits and two-out hits, as a former pitcher I know those really hurt,” TCU coach Kirk Saarloos said. “It just seems like once you get a couple of them, it’s in the back of your mind in terms of trying to make the next pitch better. Ultimately our guys did a really good job, fought off some difficult pitches and then got a pitch that they were able to put put into play.”

Said UA coach Chip Hale: “It’s been sort of a song all year for us, we’ve not put guys away.”

Taylor, a projected first round pick in next month’s MLB Draft, went 4 for 5 with six RBI.

Arizona’s power lefties got to TCU starter Kole Klecker early, as Chase Davis doubled and then Kiko Romero crushed a monster 2-run home run in the top of the first. It gave him 88 RBI, breaking Ron Hassey’s school record of 86 from 1974, and a moonshot solo blast in the eighth made it 89 and tied him with Davis for the team homer lead at 21.

But the Wildcats only had five more hits after the first inning, with nine in a row retired at one point, and didn’t have consecutive batters reach base again until the eighth. Combined with the 5-4 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, it marked the first time Arizona has had consecutive games with four or fewer runs since April 28-29 and dropped its record to 2-18 when failing to score more than five.

Redshirt freshman Jackson Kent came on for Walty with a man on and one out in the second, and after loading the bases with two singles got a popout and a double play to stop the bleeding. He threw a clean third, and Arizona cut the deficit to 6-3 in the fourth on Mason White’s solo homer over the video board, but the bottom of the fourth saw TCU’s speed cause problems for the first time as the Wildcats committed two errors on the same play.

Taylor bunted to lead off, and Kent fielded a ball that Tony Bullard was also going for. Kent’s throw went wide of first, Taylor headed for second and would have been out easy if that throw didn’t hit him, instead moving him to third. He came home on an infield single, making it 7-3.

TCU added two more unearned runs in the fifth, the byproduct of a rare fielding error by Nik McClaughry. Arizona finished the game with three errors, the same number it had in the previous seven contests.

“Sometimes it’s just not your night,” Hale said. “I just was disappointed with the way we played. We just did not play good baseball. That disappoints me. It’s just not acceptable.”

In Santa Clara (35-19) the Wildcats will face a team that had won eight in a row before losing 13-6 to regional host Arkansas earlier Friday. The Broncos, in the tourney for the first time since 1997, led 2-0 and held the Razorbacks without a hit for the first three innings but ended up issuing 10 walks and hitting three batters.

Arizona hasn’t gone 0-2 in an NCAA regional since 2003. Now it finds itself in a situation similar to last week in the Pac-12 tourney where it can’t afford another loss.

“This one kind of stings a little bit, but I mean, that Pac-12 tournament we had our backs against the wall the whole time, and I think that was some of our best baseball we’ve played all year,” Romero said. “I think we’re gonna turn around well. The Pac-12 tournament definitely prepared us for this.”