The Arizona Wildcats last hosted NCAA Regionals 20 years ago.
It’s taken them exactly two games to find a winning formula.
Johnny Field tripled and Alex Mejia doubled in a five-run third inning, and Konner Wade settled down after a rough start to give the top-seeded UA a 16-4 win Saturday over third-seeded Louisville at Hi Corbett Field.
The UA advances to tonight’s 8 p.m. game, where they’ll have a chance to win the regional outright.
The Wildcats will face the winner of the 4 p.m. elimination game between Missouri and Louisville; the Tigers knocked second-seeded New Mexico State from the tournament with a 6-2 win earlier Saturday. Should Arizona fall short tonight, it’d get another chance in Monday’s winner-take-all game.
The UA (40-21) jumped ahead Saturday the same way it did in Friday’s 15-3 win over Mizzou: By dodging trouble early and putting its opponent on its heels.
Arizona has scored 31 runs in two nights, its most in the postseason since 1986. That year’s team scored 35 in back-to-back Central Regional wins, and went on to win the College World Series.
“With our offense, we’re capable of anything, to be honest,” said Mejia, who finished 5 for 5. “Our guys swing the bat really well.”
The story of Saturday night’s win starts with the beginning — or, rather, the big inning.
The UA scored five in the third inning, thanks to five consecutive hits and a hit batsman, sparking a partisan crowd of 4,007 at its first-year home.
Arizona trailed 1-0 when Riley Moore was plunked, putting the lead runner on base with nobody out. Trent Gilbert sacrificed him to second, and Joey Rickard evened the game with a single that Louisville center field Adam Engel muffed. Field then tripled to left-center field, and the Wildcats led 2-1.
They weren’t finished: Mejia doubled then doubled, and scored when Robert Refsnyder singled to right. Seth Mejias-Brean and Bobby Brown followed with hits, and the UA led 5-1. The club added two more runs in the fifth, one in the sixth and seven in the seventh.
Mejia had three RBIs and scored four runs. Seth Mejias-Brean went 4 for 6 with a pair of RBIs. Seven of Arizona’s nine starting hitters knocked in runs. Brandon Dixon, a late-game defensive substitution, blasted a three-run home in the Wildcats’ seventh-inning rally.
The hot hitting “leaves less pressure” on the hitters, Mejias-Brean said.
“Knowing that with (runners on) first and second, second and third, one out, all you have to do is get the ball in the air,” he said. “It’s a great feeling for me to hit behind these guys.”
Arizona’s opponents are noticing.
“Those guys are locked in,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. “They seem to be putting up 12 hits and double-digit runs on a consistent basis.
“You put up double-digit runs and double-digit hits in a regional, you’re doing it against some of the better teams in the country.”
The Wildcats’ third-inning rally chased Louisville starter Jared Ruxer. The freshman was charged with five runs, all earned, in 2 1/3 innings. His replacement, Dace Kime, surrendered two runs in the sixth.
Arizona ace Konner Wade narrowly avoided a similar fate.
Louisville left the bases loaded in the first inning and stranded a runner on first base in the second before Wade settled down. In eight-plus innings, the sophomore right-hander allowed four runs — just two were earned — on 10 hits. He struck out five and walked two, and threw 124 pitches.
The Cardinals (40-21) scored its one run during a frantic first. After Wade struck Adam Engel out, Nick Ratajczak singled and Ty Young walked. Stewart Ijames then ripped an RBI single, giving the Cardinal a 1-0 lead. Wade then hit Alex Chittenden with a pitch, loading the bases, and fell behind Cole Sturgeon 3-1.
However, Young tried to advance home on a ball-three wild pitch and was thrown out at the plate. Wade walked Sturgeon, then got Zak Wasserman to pop out, ending the threat.
“I came out too excited,” Wade said, “and just needed to take a breath and slow the game down.”
The Wildcats need to win just one of their next two games to advance through the tournament and into the Super Regionals, where they would face the winner of the Chapel Hill, N.C. bracket. Louisville must win three consecutive times — twice today and once in Monday’s winner-take-all game, if necessary —to pull off the upset.
Arizona doesn’t have to be perfect anymore.
“You’ve just got out and compete every single inning on every single play,” Lopez said. “We’ve told our guys from the midway of the conference season: It’s not gymnastics, it’s not ice skating: It’s baseball. There are going to be a few mistakes. There are going to be some rough edges here.”