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Arizona baseball salvages series split in first series of 2021 season against Ball State

Griffin Riley

Cameron Haskell pitching during Arizona’s game against New Mexico state on April 30 in Tucson.

After winning its season opener by a score of 3-0 against Ball State on Friday, Feb. 19, the Arizona baseball team wound up losing two of the next three games to split the opening series against the Cardinals. The main theme, and biggest struggle the Wildcats had in the two losses was hitting with runners in scoring position. 

Here is a recap of each of those three games. 

Saturday, Feb. 20 – Ball State 8, Arizona 7 (11 innings)

It was a rocky start for Arizona starting pitcher Chandler Murphy, who gave up one run in the first inning, but the right-hander out of Peoria, Arizona settled in quickly, retiring nine batters in a row after hitting the first batter he faced in the second inning. Murphy put together a quality start for Arizona, going six innings while allowing three runs (two earned) on six hits with zero walks and six strikeouts. 

After sophomore Ryan Holgate blasted a three-run home run to right field off the Terry Francona Hitting Center to give the Wildcats a 6-3 lead, Murphy was on track to earn the win. Arizona added another run in the seventh inning when Branden Boissiere hit an RBI groundout with the bases loaded and one out. The Wildcats were in prime position to take a 2-0 series lead as they led 7-3 after seven innings. 

After throwing a scoreless seventh inning for Arizona, reliever Dawson Netz remained in the game in the eighth inning. The leadoff man for Ball State reached based after hitting a high pop-up that initially looked to be foul before the wind on a cold Saturday night at Hi Corbett Field led to the ball landing in fair territory. The next two Cardinal hitters reached base to load the bases when Netz was taken out for Randy Abshier. The sophomore did not have control of his pitches, walking two Ball State batters in a row with the bases loaded to cut the Wildcats lead to 7-5 when another pitching change was made. Senior Vince Vannelle, who had just earned the save Friday night, induced a double play that saw the runner on third base score to cut the lead to 7-6, but with two outs in the inning. Abshier then allowed a single, and just like that we had a new ball game at 7-7 heading into the ninth inning. 

Ball State made an interesting move, putting in senior John Baker into the game in the eighth inning. Baker was originally scheduled to start Sunday’s game, but the Cardinals clearly felt they had a chance to win this game, so they did not waste any time bringing in the veteran right-hander. 

After striking out the side in the eighth inning, Baker struck out the first two batters he faced in the ninth inning for his fifth consecutive strikeout. Then, he all of a sudden lost his control, walking three straight hitters to load the bases and put the winning run just 90 feet from home with Ryan Holgate stepping up to the plate, who had just crushed a home run earlier in the game. On an 0-1 count, head coach Jay Johnson did the unthinkable, sending Jacob Blas to steal home. It was somewhat close, but Blas was tagged just before he reached home plate and we headed to extra innings for the first time on the season. 

After both teams went down in order in the tenth inning, left-hander Ian Churchill remained in the game for the Wildcats in the top of the eleventh inning. After Ball State loaded the bases with one out, the junior picked up a huge strikeout for the second out of the inning. The Wildcats were just one out away from getting out of the jam before Churchill walked in the go ahead run on a full count. 

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Arizona was down to their final three outs in the bottom half of the inning. After the first two hitters went down in order, the Wildcats put up a two out rally with back-to-back hits by Donta Williams and Blas before Kobe Kato flew out to centerfield to end the game and drop Arizona to 1-1 on the season. It was a tough loss for the Wildcats in a game where it seemed like they were in full control through seven innings. 

Sunday, Feb. 21 – Ball State 5, Arizona 2

This was a game that saw many players either make their Arizona debut or collegiate debut as a whole. 

Junior left-hander Garrett Irvin started the game for the Wildcats, but only lasted 1.2 innings and was lifted for sophomore Quinn Flanagan with the bases loaded. 

Head coach Jay Johnson said after the game that Irvin had some arm soreness in the fall, and he wasn’t ready to go deep in a game. The plan all along was for him to go once through the lineup or throw 30 pitches, whichever came first. 

Arizona struck out early, taking a 2-0 lead in the second inning after Donta’ Williams hit an RBI single followed by a sacrifice fly by Tony Bullard. 

Flanagan was dealing early, entering the game with two outs in the second inning and not allowing a hit through the fourth inning. Ball State got to Flanagan in the fifth inning, cutting the Arizona lead in half to 2-1. The sixth inning, similarly to the eighth inning Saturday night, was where Ball State really got to Arizona’s bullpen. 

Flanagan allowed two of the first three batters to reach base before true freshman Riley Cooper entered the game out of the bullpen. He gave up a hard-hit single to tie the game before notching a huge strikeout for the second out of the inning with runners on the corners. Cooper was lifted for redshirt freshman German Fajardo, a Nogales High school prospect, who allowed back-to-back singles to give Ball State a 5-2 lead. It was the second straight game that the Cardinals posted a four-run inning on the Wildcats. 

The Wildcats went down quietly in the seventh and eighth inning before putting the tying run at home plate with two outs when Mac Bingham quietly hit a pop up to end the game. Arizona could only salvage a series split at this point with a win Monday morning. 

Monday, Feb. 22 – Ball State 

After back-to-back losses over the weekend, the Wildcats were able to salvage a series sweep against Ball State with a rather dominant win Monday over the Cardinals. 

For the third straight game, Arizona was able to get off to an early lead with two runs in the second inning. The only difference between this game and the last two games was that the Wildcats were able to keep pouring on more runs Monday morning, scoring at least one run in all eight innings they batted in. 

Jacob Blas got Arizona off to an early lead in the first inning with a perfectly placed bunt single that just got by the pitcher to score Kobe Kato from third base. The Arizona bats followed that up with a pair of runs the following inning, including an RBI double from freshman third baseman Jacob Berry, who collected his first three hits as an Arizona Wildcat in Monday’s game. 

RELATED: Arizona baseball team opens the 2021 season with 3-0 win over Ball State

Right-hander TJ Nichols recorded his first career collegiate start for the Wildcats, throwing five strong innings while earning the win. Nichols displayed strong composure early in the game, getting out of multiple jams in the first two innings to hold the Cardinals scoreless. Ball State finally got to Nichols in the third inning, putting two runs on the board, but a line drive hit right to Nichols on the mound turned into a double play when the freshman turned and doubled the runner at third base to end the inning and maintain a 3-2 lead for Arizona. 

Nichols final line was five innings, two runs (both earned), seven hits, two walks and three strikeouts on 74 pitches. 

It was a total team effort for the Wildcats on Monday with eight of the nine starters logging at least one hit. They were led by the aforementioned Berry, along with first baseman Branden Boissiere who each logged three hits, while designated hitter Ryan Holgate recorded two RBI’s to give him seven RBI’s in the series. 

Dawson Netz threw two scoreless innings of relief before getting in a little trouble in the eighth inning where the Cardinals scored three runs, but senior right-hander Preston Price was able to come in and get Arizona off the field that inning before closing the game in the ninth inning to give the Wildcats some momentum to finish the opening series of the season. 

Despite ending the series on a high note, Johnson was still disappointed by the outcome of the series. 

“I’m very disappointed in the weekend, and that’s to take nothing away from Ball State,” Johnson said. “I think that’s a very good team. I’m just disappointed that we left a lot on the table in terms of what we could have accomplished. We have to take the positive from that to figure out how we can improve from here.”

Following the loss on Sunday, Johnson had a lengthy talk with the team on the field about the mental game and making sure players don’t let certain situations overwhelm them. He said he thought that certain players were putting too much pressure on themselves and not letting the game come to them. Johnson thought that they did a better job of that in Monday’s win, but there is still room to improve. 

“I thought our mindset was in a better spot,” Johnson said. “That was the message last night. We have a long way to go on that with some young players, and even some of the returners losing the season. I thought they responded well, I mean the hay was in the barn as far as Saturday and Sunday. There was nothing we could do about it. I was pleased to see us do what we needed to do to be successful today.” 

Berry said he felt that the team was more in the moment in Monday’s win, not looking too much into the future or trying to do too much. 

“I think today we were just a little more present in the moment, not trying to do too much as one person or one individual,” Berry said. “I think we all just tried to score one run, don’t try to do too much or make a big hit bigger than it is or a big situation bigger than it is. We just continued to play hard and just kind of executed our plan.”

The Wildcats are back in action on Thursday, Feb. 25, at Hi Corbett Field for another four-game series against Southeastern Louisiana who are coming off a series sweep that saw them outscore Mississippi Valley State 66-0 in three games this past weekend. First pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m. MST on Thursday, Feb. 25. 

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