Arizona third baseman Tony Bullard is only two weeks removed from struggling with a .242 batting average with just one home run up to that point of this season.
That was before he became Mr. June.
“When he wasn’t in a lineup for a period of time this year, there was no moping or feeling sorry for himself,” Arizona coach Jay Johnson said. “He knew he had to get better. He put in the right kind of work.”
Tony Bullard’s last 7 games:
5/27 vs Dixie St: 1-4, RBI
5/28 vs DS: 3-4, 2 R, 5 RBI, 2HR, 2B
5/29 vs DS: 2-4, R, RBI
6/4 vs GCU: 3-5, R, 3 RBI, HR, 3B
6/5 vs UCSB: 3-4, R, 2 RBI, HR
6/6 vs UCSB: 1-3, 2 R
6/11 vs Ole Miss: 3-4, 3 R, 2 RBI, 2 HR, 3B
16-28 (.571)/6 HR/14 RBI
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) June 12, 2021
Bullard’s two solo home runs and a triple fueled Arizona to a 9-3 win over Ole Miss in Game One of the Tucson Super Regional on Friday in front of 5,839 fans at Hi Corbett Field.
Arizona (44-15) is a win away from the College World Series.
Game Two is Saturday night at 7 p.m. and the thought pervades, “Can Bullard keep this up?”
Bullard has batted 16 of 28 (.571) with six home runs and 14 RBIs in his seven-game hitting streak dating to the May 27 series opener against Dixie State at Hi Corbett Field.
He had only one home run and 15 RBI in 95 at-bats entering that series. His batting average has gone from .242 before that weekend to .331 now.
“My stance, I got a little lower so I can use my legs a little more to generate that power,” Bullard said. “I’m just swinging at strikes and not balls, honestly. That’s what’s really, really helping out.”
Johnson said he noticed a change in Bullard after the sophomore struck out three times in a 15-3 series-ending win against Utah on May 2 at Hi Corbett Field. His batting average dipped to .211 at that point. Over the next eight games, Bullard went 11 for 32 (.344).
“It looked like he found something and all that work had started to click, and then he realized he’s as good as I think he is and now he carries himself that way,” Johnson said. “He takes those types of at-bats. I’m the least surprised person probably of anybody.”
Bullard’s two home runs are the first time an Arizona player had a multi-home run game in an NCAA tournament game since Jordan Brown in the 2004 College World Series against Arkansas.
Don’t forget about Donta’
Bullard’s overpowering performance of late is not one to overshadow the contribution of leadoff hitter Donta’ Williams.
Williams went 3 for 5 with a double, home run and four RBIs on Friday night to boost his average to .350. His lead off home run in the bottom of the first was the answer Arizona needed after Ole Miss (44-21) rallied for three runs off starter Chase Silseth in the top of the inning.
“That was great to get us going,” Johnson said of Williams’ home run that barely glanced off the top of the red home run line on the wall deep to the alley in right-center field.
Johnson talked about Williams, a junior, touring Arizona’s campus on an unofficial visit during the Summer of 2015 on the same day as Bullard. That was shortly after Johnson was hired as Arizona’s coach, replacing the retired Andy Lopez.
Bullard was entering his sophomore season at J.W. North High School in Riverside, Calif., and Williams was about to be a junior at Legacy High School in Las Vegas.
Six years later, Williams and Bullard combined for six hits, three home runs and six RBIs to put Arizona one game away from its 18th College World Series.
“There’s nobody playing better baseball right now in the country than Donta’ Williams and Tony Bullard,” Johnson said.
Ole Miss pitching can’t-miss prospect in Game Two
All-SEC junior left-handed pitcher Doug Nikhazy (9-2, 2.18 ERA) will pitch Saturday likely against Arizona southpaw Garrett Irvin (6-2, 3.51).
In 86 2/3 innings this season, Nikhazy has allowed only 28 walks with 132 strikeouts. Opponents are batting .180 against him.
Nikhazy is one of 25 semifinalists who will vie to be one of five finalists for the Golden Spikes Award for college baseball’s player of the year.
“Doug’s a great competitor, great pitcher, features four pitches at times,” Johnson said. “It will be a good competitive battle. We’re gonna have to be on it and be focused and competitive like we were tonight.”
Irvin is coming off a complete-game victory over UC Santa Barbara in last weekend’s Tucson Regional.
Silseth “buckling his chin strap” key for Arizona
After allowing those three runs to Ole Miss in the first, Silseth settled down over the next 3 1/3 innings and allowed only three singles and a walk without a runner advancing past second base. He struck out five batters including slugger Tim Elko twice. Johnson said Elko was “playing like Babe Ruth” entering the Super Regional.
Elko hit two home runs Monday despite playing with a torn ACL in the 12-9 win over Southern Miss in the Oxford Regional final.
Pitching coach Nate Yeskie relieved Silseth after Silseth induced a pop out for the second out in the fifth inning, thereby preventing Silseth for an opportunity for the win with five complete innings. But Ole Miss had runners on first and second and Yeskie believed left-hander Riley Cooper going against left-handed batter T.J. McCants was a more favorable matchup.
Cooper got McCants to ground out to second base to end the inning, keeping the game tied at 3 at that point.
“I think the story of the game was Chase buckling his chin strap after the original punch to the gut (in the first inning) and getting us three more innings,” Johnson said. “We made the matchup move with with Riley and he did what Riley does and came in and executed at a high level.”
Jacob Berry blasted a two-run home run in the bottom of that inning to put Arizona ahead for good, 5-3.
Cooper went on to pitch 2 1/3 innings without allowing a run or hit while walking one batter. He did not get a strikeout but he induced three flyouts and three groundouts, including a double play in which he was involved — a first baseman to shortstop to pitcher exchange in the sixth inning.
Cooper, Dawson Netz and Vince Vanelle retired the last nine batters for Ole Miss. Only one ball the last three innings left the infield.
That was an encouraging development for the bullpen for Yeskie and Johnson because two left-handed relievers — Gil Luna and Randy Abshier — have been suspended by the university for the Super Regional because of an undisclosed violation of student code of conduct.
Oh to be seen at Hi Corbett Field
The stars came out — Tucson style — to Hi Corbett on Friday night.
The list included:
- Recently-retired Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea
- Candrea’s senior captain Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza
- Former Sunnyside and Arizona baseball star and current rodeo-roping standout Diego Rico (sat next to Candrea)
- Former Arizona player and coach Jerry Stitt, now Pima’s assistant athletic director
- Kwang C. An, better known as Mr. An, owner of Mr. An’s Teppanyaki Steak and Seafood Restaurant on Oracle
- Former Tucson Toros/Sidewinders/Padres general manager Mike Feder and his son Nate.
- Wes Clements, member of Arizona’s 1980 College World Series championship team, provided an analysis for ESPN.
- Steve Strong, who played for the Wildcats’ 1986 CWS title team, was with Stitt (affectionately known as “Stitter”).
Feder returned to Hi Corbett, where he was part of the magic of the popular Tucson Toros of the early 1990’s. His slogan for the club, “The Fun is Back,” came to life with Tucson winning the PCL title in 1991 and 1993.
.@MikeFeder and son Nate back at Hi Corbett Field to watch Arizona and Ole Miss in the Super Regional. Mike was the GM for the Tucson Toros during the glory years when they won the PCL title with huge crowds at Hi Corbett. pic.twitter.com/PzXpwi5Xhg
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) June 12, 2021
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District