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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona baseball 2024 recap: unlikely conference champs and sour endings

Arizonas+Garen+Caulfield+hits+a+home+run+on+April+2+at+Hi+Corbett+Field+in+a+game+against+University+of+New+Mexico.+Arizona+baseball+won+the+game+in+the+top+of+the+ninth+inning+9-1.+
Nathanial Stenchever
Arizona’s Garen Caulfield hits a home run on April 2 at Hi Corbett Field in a game against University of New Mexico. Arizona baseball won the game in the top of the ninth inning 9-1.

Arizona trailed New Mexico State University 9-1 at Hi Corbett Field when nearby lightning caused a 48-minute delay in the fifth inning in the teams’ March 26 meeting.

Anthony “Tonko” Susac, who started the game, gave up 4 earned runs over just three innings pitched. Though Arizona mounted a spirited comeback attempt, outscoring New Mexico State 8-3 after the delay, the rally fell short as the Aggies handed the Wildcats their seventh loss (12-9) in their last ten games, dropping Arizona’s season record to 10-13 (4-5 in Pac-12). Arizona looked like a team going nowhere fast. 

Two months later, the Wildcats were storming the field at Scottsdale Stadium after walking off USC in the Pac-12 Tournament Championship. Susac, who moved to the bullpen following the start against New Mexico State, earned a role as the team’s closer, allowing just 5 earned runs in his final 14.2 innings pitched, including a critical scoreless top of the ninth against the Trojans that set-up the walk-off win. Two days later, the Wildcats, who had also won the Pac-12 regular season championship, received news that they’d be hosting an NCAA Tournament regional in Tucson, making Chip Hale the first Arizona head coach since Frank Sancet to make the NCAA Tournament in each of his first three seasons with the program.

None of this was expected to happen. In a pre-season coaches poll, Arizona was picked to finish ninth out of 11 teams in the Pac-12. The Wildcats were coming into this season with an inexperienced lineup and unproven pitching staff. The team had lost their two most productive hitters from the 2023 season Kiko Romero and Chase Davis — to the Major League Baseball Draft, and were coming off a season in which their pitching staff put up the second-worst ERA (5.97) in the Pac-12

However, after the loss to New Mexico State, Arizona wouldn’t lose another game until April 16, going on an 11-game winning streak and not losing another home game until April 30, good for a 10-game home winning streak. The unlikely run was kicked off with three consecutive walk-off wins against UCLA, but the magic of the “Cardiac Cats” was truly encapsulated on April 13 against Louisiana Tech University when, entering the bottom of the ninth down 5-0, the Wildcats were able to score 6 runs off a pair of walks and six hits to pull off the impossible come-from-behind win. 

Entering the final series of the regular season, Arizona needed just a single win against second-place Oregon State to secure the final Pac-12 Championship. After being outscored 25-3 in the first two games of the series and facing a 3-2 deficit going into the bottom of the ninth, Arizona was in serious jeopardy of blowing its chance at a conference title. 

However, the Wildcats worked a pair of runners on base with a walk and a hit-by-pitch, setting up a bases clearing double from Brendan Summerhill to walk-off the Beavers on senior night. A week later, it was deja vu as the Wildcats once again engineered a comeback victory against USC in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game for their eighth walk-off win of the season.

Arizona’s overachievement relative to preseason expectations can be largely attributed to the complete turnaround of its pitching staff, which held the second-best ERA (4.46) in the conference and key offensive contributions from lowerclassmen. 

Prior to the season, Kevin Vance was hired away from Boston College as the new pitching coach. The team also sported a new three-man starting rotation made up of sophomore Jackson Kent (3-4, 4.08 ERA), Wichita State transfer Clark Candiotti (7-4, 3.39 ERA) and University of Nevada transfer Cam Walty (8-2, 3.29 ERA), all three of whom were selected to the Pac-12 All-Conference team. Walty and Candiotti, both seniors, brought much-needed experience to Arizona’s pitching crew and, under Vance’s oversight, each had the best season of their career. Walty in particular was vital down the stretch, pitching against Oregon State and USC to help Arizona clinch the Pac-12 regular season and tournament championships.

Meanwhile, the youth stepped up for Arizona’s offense. Sophomore shortstop Mason White led the team in runs (55), home runs (19), runs batted in (65), total bases (144), walks (33) and on-base plus slugging (.995), while Summerhill, a sophomore outfielder, led the team in batting average (.324) and on-base percentage (.399). Other lowerclassmen offensive contributors included sophomore infielder Maddox Mihalakis, sophomore catcher Adonys Guzman, freshman outfielder Easton Breyfogle and freshman infielder Andrew Cain — all of whom started in more than 25 games and, barring any surprise transfers, all of whom should return to the team next season. 

The production from Arizona’s upperclassmen hitters was mixed. Second baseman Garen Caulfield, a fifth-year junior, put together a strong campaign, hitting .310 and leading the team with 19 doubles, but senior outfielder Emilio Corona, who had a breakout season in 2023 with 11 home runs and a 1.060 OPS in 152 at-bats after transferring from Pima Community College, struggled with inconsistency and decreased power at the plate, hitting just six home runs in 214 at-bats. This inconsistency was encapsulated during a brutal slump between March 9 and March 28 in which Corona went 6-for-41, dropping his batting average to a season low .208. 

However, Corona was able to rebound in the second half of the season, going 15-for-25 between April 24 and May 5. After fracturing his hand against Oregon State in the final series of the season, Corona still found ways to contribute, scoring the Pac-12 Tournament-clinching run as a pinch runner and even starting both games of the NCAA Tournament in right field.

Despite all their unlikely accomplishments, the Wildcats were unable to make any noise in the NCAA Tournament, losing two consecutive games in front of a sold out Hi Corbett Field crowd. It didn’t help that they had a brutal draw in the Tucson Regional. The first team they faced, No. 4 seed Grand Canyon University, had already beaten Arizona twice in the regular season, including a 24-8 beatdown at Hi Corbett Field in their most recent meeting, while the second team they faced, No. 2 seed Dallas Baptist University, had a higher RPI and a win against the Wildcats earlier in the season at the Frisco Classic.

Arizona’s lackluster NCAA Tournament performance, though disappointing, wasn’t shocking to those who had followed the team all season, during which Arizona struggled to beat high-level opponents. Arizona went just 3-10 against quad-one RPI teams. Additionally, two of the three teams Arizona beat in the Pac-12 Tournament had losing records, with the Wildcats avoiding the University of Oregon and Oregon State, the No. 2 and 3 seeds against whom Arizona went 2-4 during the regular season. 

Looking Ahead:

The core of Arizona’s young lineup will return for the 2025 season. However, the Wildcats will lose both Candiotti and Walty, meaning that Hale will need to acquire quality pitching via the transfer portal and the high school recruiting trail in order to improve upon this season. Kent, the team’s only returning starting pitcher, had a dominant start of the season but struggled in his final four starts, allowing 21 runs over 18.2 innings pitched.

This is the second year in a row in which the Wildcats have been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament in consecutive games and the third consecutive season in which they’ve failed to advance past regionals. Expectations for Hale and the Wildcats will be much higher in 2025 after their success this season.


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