The Pac-12 champion Arizona Wildcats began their 40th road to the College World Series at a nearly-packed Hi Corbett Field Friday night against Grand Canyon University with a comeback win, 12-6, to advance in the winner’s bracket of the Tucson Regional.
The No. 1-seeded Wildcats (41-15) play No. 3 UC Santa Barbara, which upset No. 2 Oklahoma State earlier Friday, on Saturday night at 7. The Gauchos (40-18) beat the Cowboys 14-4.
No. 4 GCU (39-20-1) and Oklahoma State play in an elimination game today at 1 p.m.
Arizona won the Pac-12 outright for the first time since 1992, and Tucson is hosting a regional tournament for the first time since 2012, when Arizona won the College World Series.
As the clouds rolled in over the Tucson sunset before first pitch, it created a hazy atmosphere.
Hazy could definitely be used to describe the first two innings for the Wildcats.
The Wildcats found themselves in a four-run hole early thanks to well placed hitting by a GCU team that was appearing in their first Division I postseason in school history.
With the Wildcats needing a spark, along with the over 5,000 fans in attendance, it was their leadoff hitter Donta Williams who came up big.
However, it was not with his bat, but rather his glove.
Williams made a diving catch in center field to retire the top of the second inning, saving a potential run, and bringing the fans at Hi Corbett Field to their feet for the first time of the night.
“Whatever ball comes my way I feel I should catch and it gives that feeling to my team that I just put my body on the line for them. It could change the game in so many ways and I feel like defensive plays, it creates energy for other defensive players and going offensive wise too,” Williams said.
The energy was finally in “Hi-C” or “The Juicebox” as Williams called Hi-Corbett Field, and once it was, the Wildcats began to chip into the Antelope lead.
However, it was Arizona’s six through nine hitters that were the stars of this opening night.
Tony Bullard, who was hitting sixth in the lineup, launched a solo home run to left field with one out in the third, and the Wildcats added one more run thanks to three straight base hits to right field from the seven, eight and nine hitters.
The Wildcats added another run in the third behind Kobe Kato’s two-out triple and, once again, Bullard coming up with a clutch single to bring them within one.
The Cats would eventually even it at 4-4, and then a pitching duel would ensue between Arizona’s bullpen and GCU standout starter Pierson Ohl, who would go on to throw five innings and just over 90 pitches on the night.
Arizona’s starter Chase Silseth would go only three innings, with freshmen Riley Cooper and TJ Nichols being called upon by head coach Jay Johnson to help keep them in the game.
They both were up to the challenge, holding GCU to only three hits and one run between the two of them.
With the game tied 4-4 in the bottom of the sixth inning, Tanner O’Tremba, the eight-hole hitter who Johnson said wasn’t informed he would be starting in tonight’s game until Thursday, stepped into the box and sent a pitch over the left field wall for a two-run home run into the now much clearer Tucson sky.
“I believe in Tanner, he is a great player, I brought him here because I knew he would make a significant contribution to our team, he did, he has,” said Johnson.
Johnson believes that O’Tremba, who is the only Wildcat player with NCAA tournament experience while playing at Texas Tech, including a start against Michigan in the 2019 College World Series, would have “300 at-bats on just about any team in the country.”
O’Tremba may not be in the starting lineup each day, but he continues to stay focused and locked in for when his number is called and opportunity arises.
“I think it’s important to stay in games when you are not playing and watch them and watch your teammates play and cheer them on, I think that completely helps you stay in games whether you are playing or not,” he said.
Arizona tacked on another thanks to Bullard once again, making it 7-4. GCU brought it to within one run in the top of the eighth thanks to back-to-back doubles and a balk, but that was as close as they would get.
Arizona exploded in their half of the eighth inning mainly thanks to drawing walks against the Antelope pitching staff. GCU head coach Andy Stankiewicz felt like his team was in a good position after the top of the inning, but the game quickly got away from them.
“We thought we got some momentum back, we were like ok, here we go, we are within one, and then we just didn’t take care of the ball and we didn’t pitch as well, got some ball fours, and we knew that, you can’t give this team those opportunities and it swung quickly back in their favor,” said Stankiewicz.