Arizona baseball: Wildcats advance to the College World Series after a series-clinching comeback victory over Mississippi State
”The Wildcats are heading to the College World Series for the first time since winning the National Championship in 2012.
After winning the first game of a best-of-three Super Regional series against Mississippi State University Friday, the Arizona baseball team needed just one more win to earn a trip to Omaha, Nebraska, and it got that win Saturday in walk-off fashion.
With the bases loaded in the 11th inning, Arizona catcher Cesar Salazar singled to right— scoring the game-winning run to cap off a 6-5 comeback victory.
"I try to pride myself on knowing the right thing to say," Arizona head coach Jay Johnson said. "But I'm just speechless right now."
The Wildcats were trailing the Bulldogs 5-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning, but Ryan Aguilar belted a three-run homer to right field to cut Arizona's deficit to 5-4.
The blast put Arizona within striking distance and gave the team an edge it needed in the late-innings.
"I think that after I hit that everyone believed more than ever we could win that game," Aguilar said. "It just gave us that extra boost of confidence we needed to pull it out."
After Aguilar emptied the bases, the Wildcats were able to get two more runners on base in the inning, eventually putting the tying run on second base with nobody out. However, three Wildcat batters struck out in a row, keeping the one-run deficit intact heading into the ninth inning.
Arizona left-hander Rio Gomez prevented MSU from adding to its lead, pitching a perfect ninth inning, and Arizona second baseman Cody Ramer started the bottom of the ninth with a double to left-center field. Two batters later, Alfonso Rivas reached for a pitch off the plate and hit a flare to shallow left-center field. The ball landed on the outfield grass, scoring Ramer from second and knotting the game at 5-5.
Later in the inning, the Wildcats loaded the bases with one out for Bobby Dalbec. Dalbec threw a gem on the mound in game one, but would not be the hero this time as he'd go down on strikes for the second out.
With the bases still loaded, it was now up to Salazar to bring home the winning run, but failed to do so. He grounded out to end the frame, sending the game into extra innings.
But the freshman would get a chance to redeem himself in the 11th inning in an identical spot—bases loaded with two outs—and this time he'd come through, slapping a slider from MSU's Blake Smith through the right side of the infield, scoring the winning run and punching Arizona's ticket to Omaha.
“I wasn’t trying to think about my last at-bat,” Salazar said. “I was trying to see a ball that I could hit hard through the infield. I knew he was throwing a lot of sliders...I got my pitch and executed.”
Initially, it looked like Arizona would have to try again on Sunday to get its second win of the series.
Nathan Bannister started on the mound for the Wildcats and fell behind early, giving up an RBI single to Brent Rooker in the top of the second inning.
Dalbec hit a moonshot solo homer to left to quickly tie things up at 1-1 in the bottom of the frame, but the tie didn't hold for very long. Gavin Collins hit a sac fly in the third inning to give the Bulldogs a 2-1 lead, and then Rooker homered in the fourth inning to put MSU up 3-1.
The Bulldogs didn't stop there — they tacked on an unearned run against Bannister in the seventh, making it a 4-1 MSU lead and Bannister's night was done. He pitched six innings, and allowed five hits, four runs (one unearned), while striking out five.
Then Rooker, who went 3-for-4 with three RBI, homered again in the eighth off Cody Deason, giving MSU a late 5-1 lead.
But the Bulldogs, the champions of the stacked Southeastern Conference, couldn't withstand Arizona's late surge and the Wildcats, a team that was picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12 Conference, will be the ones heading to the College World Series.
"I am so proud of these guys," Johnson said. "I thought I knew what toughness was, competitiveness, heart. And then I met them. Greatest moment of my life.”
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