Arizona Baseball

Arizona faces historic challenge after losing to Grand Canyon in Tucson Regional opener

Arizona must win four straight games over three days to win the Tucson Regional and advance to the Super Regional round (Stephanie van Latum/Special to

Chip Hale entered the press conference room at Hi Corbett Field Saturday night after the Tucson Regional opening-round loss to Grand Canyon, took a seat and breathed heavy a couple times while waiting for the first question to be asked.

What Arizona displayed in the 9-4 loss to the Antelopes was not how his team typically competes.

Most of the 8,798 in attendance, a record crowd for an Arizona game at Hi Corbett Field, left disappointed — none more than Hale.

The Cardiac Cats, the team with eight walk-off victories this season including games to win the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament championships, did not have that “we feel lucky” vibe this time.

Rolling sevens was indeed deadly — seven walks by Arizona’s pitchers and seven runners left on base.

“We didn’t play very well tonight,” Hale said, shaking his head. “They played well. They made the plays. They made some real hard ones. We just didn’t play our best game tonight.”

The Wildcats have little to no breathing room facing elimination after a season full of euphoric moments.

Hale is in need of a victory, preferably one that is easy on his ticker, although he will take any win.

“It doesn’t matter. … It’s going to be a close game, whether it’s Grand Canyon or Salpointe High School, at this point,” Hale said somewhat bewildered. “Usually we’ll make those plays to keep it close and give us a chance in the ninth, but tonight we couldn’t do it.”

History suggests that by not winning the opening game, Arizona faces a monumental task.

Hale will have to achieve what his predecessors Jay Johnson, Andy Lopez, Jerry Stitt and Jerry Kindall could not — win a regional round after losing the first game.

Arizona has not reached the next round of the NCAA tournament the last 14 times the Wildcats started the postseason with a loss. Since 1961, after losing the first game of the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats have not advanced to either the Super Regionals since the inception of that round in 1999 or to the College World Series before that.

That’s a dubious 0-14 run starting in 1961.

Arizona will try to remain alive in an elimination game Saturday at 1 p.m. against an equally befuddled Dallas Baptist team that believed it should be hosting a regional with a 44-14 record.

The Wildcats (36-22) have also now lost four consecutive postseason games dating to the 22-6 loss to eventual CWS champion Ole Miss in the 2022 Coral Gables (Fla.) Regional. Ole Miss beat Arizona in the first game of the regional that year. Arizona lost to TCU and Santa Clara in the Fayetteville (Ark.) Regional last year.

“The chances of winning the regional go way down if you don’t win the first game,” West Virginia coach Randy Mazey said after his team beat Dallas Baptist 4-1 earlier Friday.

He did not have numbers to back that up but Arizona’s history after losing the first game is all he needs.

Hale’s teams in 2022 and last year lost the first game and did not advance.

Johnson’s team in 2017 lost the first game to Sam Houston State in the Lubbock (Texas) Regional and was eliminated before reaching the Super Regional.

Lopez’s teams in 2003 and 2011 lost their first games and did not move on to the Super Regional. The Wildcats lost to Notre Dame to start the 2003 regional at Fullerton, Calif., and to Seton Hall to begin the 2011 regional at College Station, Texas.

Stitt’s Wildcats in 1999 lost to Minnesota to open the Waco (Texas) Regional and were eliminated in the next game with a loss to Eastern Illinois.

Kindall suffered six such scenarios in 1974, 1975, 1978, 1987 (with Hale as a senior in the Tempe Regional), 1992 (at Sancet Field) and 1993. The hex was almost broken in 1993 when Arizona reached the championship of the Midwest Regional at Stillwater, Okla., after losing the opening game to Auburn but the Wildcats lost 11-10 to host Oklahoma State.

Frank Sancet’s teams in 1961 and 1962 lost their first games to Texas on both occasions in what were best-of-three district tournaments at the time and did not advance to the College World Series.

The last (and only) time Arizona lost the first game in the NCAA tournament and advanced was in 1958, when the Wildcats rallied for two wins after they were defeated by Texas in the first game of a best-of-three series in the District 6 playoffs at Wildcat Field. Arizona went on to the College World Series (where it was eliminated after losses to Clemson and USC).

Arizona has advanced to the next round only once in the 18 times it has lost the first game of an NCAA tournament.

Dallas Baptist has suffered a similar fate after losing its opening-round game under Dan Heefner, who is in search of his first College World Series berth in his 17 seasons as head coach.

The Patriots are remarkably in their 13th NCAA tournament in those 17 years and have made the Super Regionals twice after winning their first game in the regional round. Heefner’s teams have lost the first game of a regional seven times now after the setback to West Virginia on Saturday.

They did not move on to the Super Regional the previous six times they came up short in the opening game.

“It’s just about playing the game the right way, having a great approach,” Heefner said when asked how he will address the do-or-die situation with his team. “I think the one thing we can draw on is the number of times we’ve been in regionals. We’ve been in this situation before and we’ve worked all the way back to the championship game time and time again.

“I think that’s what we pride ourselves on, our toughness, the ability to keep going and persevere. We look forward to this group having the opportunity to do that.”

No reason to count Arizona out even with this overwhelming data of the Wildcats not advancing after losing their first game of the NCAA tournament.

The NCAA has a double-elimination format for a reason.

It just has not worked out for Arizona over the last 60 years or so.

Who can doubt the Wildcats when odds are stacked against them, especially after this season?

They entered the last game of the regular season, down a half-game in the Pac-12 standings against a top-10 Oregon State team that routed them in the first two games of the series at Hi Corbett FIeld, allowing the Beavers to forge ahead in the race for the regular-season title.

Arizona answered back against Oregon State when Brendan Summerhill’s two-run walk-off double in the bottom of the ninth earned the Wildcats the conference championship.

The Wildcats went without a hit in the first six innings last week against USC in the Pac-12 tournament championship game. Tommy Splaine’s walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth made everyone believers once again.

“When we were in the chase for the conference title, we were constantly in that position and that feeling,” Mason White said of persevering. “This group has a really good feeling of playing furiously and playing with your back against the wall — things like that.

“We’re not scared. It’s just that we have to fall back on what we’ve done in the (batting) cage and on the field and play good baseball.”

FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER! 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, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, 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 in 2016 and is presently a special education teacher at Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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