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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


4-run first inning and bullpen heroics allow Arizona baseball to defeat GCU 6-4

Danielle Main
Arizona’s Anthony Susac pitches in the bottom of the fifth inning at the Mexican Baseball Fiesta against the Naranjeros on Oct. 5 at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium. The Wildcats won their only game of the weekend.

Early offensive fireworks and a gutsy bullpen performance propelled Arizona baseball to a 6-4 victory over its in-state rival Grand Canyon University on Tuesday, March 19. It was a night of missed opportunities for the Antelopes, as GCU managed just 4 runs despite notching 13 hits while stranding 13 runners on base throughout the game.

Both teams were coming off 14-run offensive explosions, though in very different contexts. The Wildcats’ offensive show balanced out a lethargic first two games against ASU, allowing them to avoid a home series sweep. For the three-time defending Western Athletic Conference regular-season champion Antelopes, it gave them the rubber match and a series victory against conference rivals Tarleton State University, improving their record to 11-8 (5-1 in WAC).

Tuesday’s game quickly devolved into a bullpen duel as neither starting pitcher made it past the third inning. Arizona struck early, scoring 4 runs in the first inning off GCU starting pitcher Ben Smith, who was pulled after just two innings in a performance that ballooned the freshman’s season ERA to 8.00. Junior Richie Morales kicked off the game by legging out a leadoff double on a soft fly ball that dropped in front of right fielder Elijah Buries. After Garen Caulfield smoked a low line drive off the glove of GCU third baseman Eli Paton for an infield hit, sophomore sensation Mason White split the outfielders with a fly ball triple to left center to clear the bases and give the Wildcats an early 2-0 lead. Then with two outs in the inning, junior first baseman Tommy Splaine smacked a towering fly ball that carried over the left field wall, putting Arizona up 4-0.

Both Splaine and Arizona head coach Chip Hale called the 4-run first inning “huge.”

“We talked about it before the game that we wanted to be aggressive,” Hale said. “We wanted to take the fight to them. We had the problem [Saturday] night with ASU and their lefty. We said, ‘hey, we’re going to get the same type of pitcher. We’ve got to get after him and even if we make outs, we’re going to be aggressive.’”

“That definitely started some momentum,” Splaine said.

The Antelopes failed to capitalize on their early scoring opportunities, loading the bases with only one out in both the second and third innings but scoring just 1 run. Arizona starting pitcher Anthony “Tonko” Susac was pulled with two outs in the third inning, allowing five hits and 1 earned run over 2.2 innings of work. According to Hale, the pregame plan was to limit Susac to three innings or less.

In the top of the fourth inning, a Dustin Crenshaw single and Paton walk set up a two-out RBI single up the middle for Zach Yorke to pull GCU within 2 points.

Arizona punched back in the bottom of the fourth, sparked by Brendan Summerhill’s hustle triple to deep left-center field. Morales brought him home with a single that split the first and second basemen, and then scored from first when GCU left fielder Tyler Wilson dropped a fly ball hit by White to the deep left field corner, putting the Wildcats up 6-2.

In the top of the sixth, a slow roller to third, a bloop to right and a flyout to deep center field set up runners on the corner with one out for Wilson, who drove in a run for GCU on a fielder’s choice to second base. A pair of singles and a wild pitch helped the Antelopes score another run in the top of the eighth, cutting the Wildcats’ lead to 2. However, a turning point came with two outs and a runner on third base, when Splaine made a spectacular recovery on a Wilson ground ball that took an awkward bounce off first base, narrowly winning the footrace to first base and saving a run in the process.

“Honestly, I was just trying to keep it in front to stop the go-ahead runner from getting to second,” Splaine said. “But once I saw it in front of me, [I was thinking] just get up and stay calm and get the out at first.”

In the top of the ninth, right-handed reliever Casey Hintz sat the Antelopes down in order, earning the save and securing a 6-4 Wildcat victory. The bullpen worked their way into and out of trouble all night, allowing eight hits but only surrendering 2 runs while stranding nine runners on base.

“The bullpen was fantastic,” said Hale. “Our pitching coach Keith Vance did a great job of mixing and matching up the pitchers with the different hitters on their club. They did a great job of swinging the bat. They had guys on every inning and we were able to stem the tide.”

It was also another strong performance for third baseman Morales, who rewarded a move to the top of the lineup by going three for five at the plate with a double, 2 runs scored and a run batted in.

“He’s a contact guy,” Hale said. “He doesn’t worry about 0-2 or 2-0. It’s the same thing. He’s going to use the right side of the field.”

Looking ahead: 

The win improves Arizona (9-10, 3-3 in Pac-12) on the young season and gives them momentum going into a pivotal conference matchup on the road against the University of Oregon this weekend.

“They’ve had our number at times,” Hale said. “We’re a different club. We’re hoping to turn it around. We know the weather is going to be something to deal with. We’ll dress warm and we’ll take the fight to them.”

Game one in Eugene, Oregon begins on Friday, March 22 at 5:05 p.m.

“We’re just looking forward to another competitive Pac-12 series,” Splaine said of Oregon. “Gotta jump on them quickly.”

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