The Arizona baseball team experienced a successful business trip as they went to Corvallis, Oregon, and took two of three from a very formidable Oregon State team. The series began on Friday, May 21, and concluded on Sunday, May 23. The series victory could potentially clinch a Pac-12 title for Arizona and a top eight national seed in the NCAA tournament.
Arizona head coach Jay Johnson alluded to how, with so much at stake coming into this series, they're the best team when it comes to blocking the outside noise and that some areas of their game they can still correct.
“Nobody's going to be better at that than us,” Johnson said. “Going into the NCAA tournament, that’s 12 days from now so there’s a real opportunity to get some things in order. There’s some things that happened in the game [game three] today that I want to get in order. I have a saying that I don’t want to accept in winning what we wouldn’t accept in losing. There’s a few things that I had [seen] in the game today that we’re going to work on Tuesday and Wednesday and be prepared for this weekend.”
Game One: Arizona-12, Oregon State-4
Both teams entered game one eager to get a win and set the tone for the rest of the series. Especially considering everything that was riding on this series for Arizona. Johnson and his club appeared more than ready to take the field as they couldn’t wait to show Oregon State why they deserve to be crowned champions of the conference of champions by season's end.
The Wildcats were led by their Friday night ace in Chase Silseth who was eager to make up for his poor outing last week against Washington. On this night, Silseth mirrored the Cy Young-esque pitcher that Arizona has been accustomed to seeing all season. It wasn’t one of his best outings. However, it was a strong outing, nonetheless. He finished his night throwing six innings, allowing two walks and four earned runs on six hits with six strikeouts. Silseth did just enough to keep Arizona within striking distance and give his team the best chance of winning.
It wasn’t going to be an easy night for arguably the most prolific offense in the country. Arizona came into this series with a remarkable seven players hitting over .330. However, it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park as they were pitted against one of the top pitchers in the Pac-12 in Oregon State’s Kevin Abel. Abel held his own against this behemoth of a lineup as he finished tossing five innings, allowing five walks, two hits, four earned runs and nine strikeouts to show for.
The Beavers would do the scoring honors and strike first in the bottom of the second. A wild pitch by Silseth allowed the runner from third to score with ease and put Oregon State ahead 1-0 early on. The Wildcats would answer with a run of their own in the top of the third inning as Donta' Williams lined a laser over the right field fence on an 0-2 pitch to tie the game at one. Abel left a fastball far over the plate and Williams took full advantage.
Going into the fifth inning, the pacing of the game felt it was going relatively quick. Silseth and Abel played a large part in this as they were dealing in the first four innings. After their second time around the lineup, Arizona’s bats came alive in the top of the fifth as they went on to score three runs and take a 4-1 lead. Mac Bingham kicked things off and swung the momentum in Arizona’s favor with a two-run single up the middle. Branden Boissiere followed with a sacrifice fly to right field for an insurance run.
Despite Arizona having the 4-1 advantage, Oregon State wouldn’t go away. The Beavers went on to score a run in the fifth and then tie the game at four in the sixth after a two-run double by Jake Dukart. The Wildcats would quickly answer back with two runs of their own to make it 6-4 in the seventh inning. Star freshman Jacob Berry, who’s in the running for Pac-12 Player of the Year, delivered a clutch two-run single that just made it passed the shortstop’s glove to give his team a huge two-run lead.
Arizona decided they weren’t satisfied with a two-run lead as they went on to put up a six spot in the eighth inning and show their opponents the damage its offense can do when they are really clicking. Tyler Casagrande opened things up in the eighth with a leadoff homerun to make it 7-4 after taking over in right field for Ryan Holgate the previous half inning. Several batters later, Boissiere would seal the Beavers’ fate with a bases clearing three-run double to right field which gave the Wildcats a commanding 10-4 advantage and his fourth RBI of the night. Seeking four RBIs for the night as well, Berry would get just that as he followed Boissiere's double with a two-run no doubter to right field. Berry immediately knew it was gone as he took time to admire it and finished it up with a beautiful bat flip for the exclamation point. Dawson Netz went on to close the game for Arizona and secure a huge win to start the series.
After scoring eight runs in the seventh and eighth innings combined, Johnson touched on the team’s lift of confidence before they hit the field for the seventh.
“We had a small team meeting and I just said ‘hey fellas this is how it’s going to go," Johnson said. "We want to go to the College World Series [and] a lot of games are going to be like this. We are very good playing in close games and all I want you to do is have as much fun as you possibly can competing for the next nine outs on both sides of the ball, and they did that."
Game Two: Arizona-1, Oregon State-3
A game one win marked Arizona’s twentieth Pac-12 conference win this season. An enormous feat in which this marks only the third time in program history an Arizona team has eclipsed 20 conference wins or more in a single season. Seeking to extend their slim first place lead in conference standings over Oregon, the Wildcats would ultimately fall short in a thriller to the Beavers in game two.
Arizona’s offense has been a goliath all season, however, in the first seven innings of this contest, they looked more like David. They have Oregon State starting pitcher Cooper Hjerpe to thank for that as they could only muster two hits against him. Hjerpe delivered a great outing as he kept the Wildcats’ bats off balance and out of sync all game. He had great command of the strike zone and did an exceptional job regarding pitching placement. To put it in perspective, Hjerpe was so dominant that Arizona’s bats got solid contact on him only once. He finished his night with seven innings pitched, allowing only two hits, a walk and one earned run on a career-high eleven strikeouts.
The Wildcats’ number two rotation guy, Garrett Irvin, did everything he could to keep his team within range and a chance to salvage the game. It wasn’t his best outing by any stretch, although he only gave up three earned runs on nine hits and two walks in 6.1 innings of work. Arizona was very fortunate to find themselves trailing only 3-1 after six innings as they easily could have faced a steeper deficit going into the seventh.
The lone run by Arizona came in the top of the sixth inning as fielder’s choice allowed Kobe Kato to score from third. The Wildcats will look back at this game knowing that they had quite a few opportunities in the later innings to either tie or even take the lead. After Kato scored, during the same play, Williams was looking to put himself in scoring position but would get thrown out at second base to end the sixth.
In the top of the eighth inning, Arizona looked prime to tie the game at three as they had runners on second and third base with only one out. The Wildcats went on to squander an ideal scoring opportunity after Kato got called out at home plate on a fielder's choice and a pop up by Mac Bingham to end the inning. Once again, the Wildcats found themselves in great position to tie the game as they had runners on second and third and no outs in the top of the ninth inning. Unfortunately, Arizona’s bad luck from the eighth inning would carry over into the ninth as they came up short on yet another great scoring opportunity when it mattered most. After a Boissiere leadoff single and Berry double, the Wildcats would falter by recording three straight outs to end the game, including a controversial foul out to the catcher by Daniel Susac which had appeared to hit the net.
Game Three: Arizona-6, Oregon State-5
A lot was on the line for both teams heading into the series finale. A win for Arizona meant the possibility of clinching the Pac-12 title and the potential of securing an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament. A win for Oregon State would most likely assure them a spot in the tourney.
In the early goings of this crucial game, Oregon State appeared to have wanted it more. They quickly raced out to a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning with no outs. After struggling to record a single out, Johnson wasn’t going to take any chances and quickly pulled starting pitcher Austin Smith out of the game for reliever Chandler Murphy. Murphy came in and was able to stop the bleeding and prevent the Beavers from running away with the game early on.
The story of this series was Arizona’s struggles against Oregon State’s starting pitching with Abel being an exception to an extent. The Wildcats struggled to get anything going offensively against opposing starting pitcher Jake Pfennigs as he only gave four hits through six innings. Pfennigs only blemish in six frames came when he gave up an RBI double to Donta Williams in the third inning.
The Beavers would tack on a run each in the third and fourth innings to make it a 5-1 ball game early on. Still trailing 5-1 after seven innings and staring directly at the jaws of defeat, the Wildcats’ offensive sleeping giant finally woke up in the top of the eighth and rallied with four runs to tie the game at five. Nik McClaughry started the rally with an RBI single to center field. Moments later, Williams slapped a pitch to right center field which scored another run and cut the Beavers’ lead in half. On the ensuing play, McClaughry would score on a wild pitch making it a one run game. Trailing only 5-4, Kato came up to bat and delivered a clutch two-out RBI single to left field to tie the game at five.
After hitting a walk-off against Washington last weekend, McClaughry would play hero ball once again as he blooped a decisive RBI single to shallow right field which would go on to be the game-winner for Arizona. Reliever Vince Vannelle was tasked with closing out the game for the Wildcats. After giving up a leadoff single to start the ninth inning, Vannelle picked himself up and recorded three straight outs to secure the huge series victory for Arizona.
A win over Oregon State and a loss by Oregon today meant that Arizona is officially the 2020-21 Pac-12 champions. Johnson gave a reflection and touched on the significance of what this monumental achievement means to the program and how proud he is of his team.
“It’s very meaningful,” Johnson said. “I think if you studied Pac-12 baseball history, you know how difficult this achievement is. I’m very proud of the players and the team. These guys never wavered. A lot of these guys that make up this team had to deal with that disappointment at the end of the 2019 season where we won 13 out of 14 games. Finished over .500 in Pac-12 play and didn’t make the NCAA tournament, that was heartbreaking. I’m proud of those guys, a lot of them returned this year [and] persevered through a couple disappointments last year with the season getting canceled. Came back ready and led us in a big time way. Historically, this is significant for our program. This is a great program but Pac-12 championships and success haven’t always come easy. Especially this year with old players, veteran teams, obviously really good coaches [and] pitching staffs. This is a massive deal and I’m really proud of our team for getting this done.”
The newly crowned Pac-12 champions will look to finish their regular season on a high note as they host Dixie State for a three-game non-conference series at Hi Corbett Field beginning on Thursday, May 27 and ending on Saturday, May 29.
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