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NCAA Baseball: Arizona’s explosive offense goes out with whimper in elimination loss to Santa Clara

7 runs in 2 NCAA games after averaging 8.6 entering tourney

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.—For much of this season, Arizona had an offense that could beat anybody and a pitching staff that kept that from happening more often. Then both came through late as the Wildcats snuck into the NCAA Tournament, despite cries from across college baseball that they didn’t deserve a bid.

They didn’t do much to prove the doubters wrong.

Arizona lost 9-3 to Santa Clara on Saturday night at Baum-Walker Stadium, getting eliminated in two games from the Fayetteville Regional after weathering a length rain delay that pushed back first pitch six hours. It was the first time the UA (33-26) has failed to win an NCAA game since 2003, while the Broncos (36-19) won their first postseason game since 1997.

“To line out the last out, it’s pretty typical of our season,” coach Chip Hale said. “I think we’ve swung the bats really well, and our pitchers, the reason why we were able to get in the tournament was they turned it around, too. Just couldn’t get it done these two games. We just didn’t play like we did like down the stretch. Disappointed with that, but it doesn’t diminish what this group has done.”

One of the top offensive squads all season, hitting .325 entering the NCAA tourney, Arizona saved arguably its worst performance at the plate for the end. The Wildcats managed only six hits, five in the final three innings, getting all their scoring after Santa Clara led 8-0.

The UA was 2 for 22 with runners on in its two NCAA losses, 1 for 10 against Santa Clara, after coming into the tourney hitting .348 with men on base. It had two hits in 10 NCAA at-bats with runners in scoring position, compared to .339 before the weekend.

Arizona was averaging 8.6 runs per game entering the NCAAs but scored only 11 in its final three contests, including the 5-4 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament final, one off the lowest 3-game scoring output of the season.

Any semblance of its normal offense might have made this a typical high-scoring 2023 UA game. Instead, only the pitching side was familiar.

Just like in Friday’s 12-4 loss to TCU, 2-strike pitching did the Wildcats in. The first eight hits for Santa Clara (36-19) came with two strikes, five of those against UA starter Aiden May.

May went 4.2 innings, allowing three runs (two earned) and five hits with seven strikeouts, three walks and two hit batters. His command was off early, but he settled down and made only one real mistake—that Efrain Manzo—put over the fence in right-center for a 3-0 lead in the third—while his other two runs were the product of walks, unlucky bounces, a throwing error and a passed ball.

Arizona had two errors, giving it five in the regional and eight in the past six games. The Wildcats had only 42 errors in 53 regular-season games.

The passed ball, which scored Santa Clara’s first run, was the beginning of a very long night for UA catcher Tommy Splaine. The sophomore started limping as he ran out a groundout in the third, but stayed in, and he had five bases stolen against him.

“We picked a lot, tried to slow them down, but tonight was a lot of delayed steals,” Hale said. “Tommy’s got some injuries he’s going to have to nurse back this summer, and they really exploited him. He couldn’t get out of his crouch very well. They saw that and they did a really good job. That’ll be something we’re gonna have to get better at.”

Splaine finished the season 0 for 39 in attempts to throw runners out, compared to 10 of 33 for junior Cameron LaLiberte. Splaine started the final four games after the two had mostly alternated starts all year, and when LaLiberte subbed in for him in the eighth the Broncos stole two more bases.

It was still only a 3-0 lead until the 6th when, with two out, freshman reliever Casey Hintz allowed an RBI single and a 2-run homer. Both with two strikes.

“Breaking ball elevated is an easy ball to hit,” Hale said.

Trevor Long allowed two runs in the seventh and Chris Barraza walked in a run in the eighth as Arizona finished the season with a 5.97 ERA, worst since 2019.

The Wildcats avoided being shutout in the NCAA tourney for the first time since the 2016 College World Series when Emilio Corona hit a solo homer in the seventh. Corona doubled in the ninth ahead of Mason White’s 2-run homer, his second of the tourney, as all six of Arizona’s hits came by players expected to return next season.

“I’m excited to see their futures with this program,” said Chase Davis, who is expected to go early in next month’s MLB Draft and will finish third in school history with 39 homers. “The sky’s the limit.”

For most of Saturday, Arizona had no idea when—or if—it would play. It showed up to the ballpark just before noon local time for a scheduled 2 p.m. start, but not long after the team arrived the rain (and lightning) began. More than 1.8 inches of rain was recorded at nearby Drake Field Airport between noon and 4 p.m., but lightning persisted in the area far beyond that.

Fayetteville Regional site coordinators, after meeting with both Hale and Santa Clara coach Rusty Filter, made a recommendation to scrap Saturday’s slate and resume Sunday morning, but the NCAA didn’t sign off on that plan. Both sides continued to monitor one last storm cell that was approaching from the east, but at 6:52 p.m. CT the decision was made to pull the tarp for a scheduled 8:06 p.m. CT first pitch.

Arizona now moves into an offseason where it figures to lose at least five starters from the batting lineup to either eligibility or the 2023 MLB Draft. The Wildcats could return all three weekend starting arms but will need to make major upgrades (and possibly changes) to the pitching staff.

“I have to make decisions and I have to evaluate,” Hale said. “We’re in the midst of that. I’ve been doing that for the last month. We’ll see where that goes. I really can’t really comment on how we’re gonna fix it or how we’re gonna do so until I kind of get my thoughts together and put it on paper and decide what we’re gonna do it.”