Lopes start hot, fade late in tourney debut

26 Th11 2021 | 04:50

TUCSON, Ariz. — On the big stage of the NCAA Division I tournament for the first time in school history, the Grand Canyon baseball team looked up to the task, jumping out to an early 4-0 lead over a University of Arizona team that is seeded No. 5 in the country. But a relentless barrage of Wildcat hitters responded with seven unanswered runs en route to a 12-6 victory Friday night in the opening round of the Tucson Regional at Hi Corbett Field.

Arizona (41-15), which ranks fourth nationally in team batting average (.325) and runs per game (8.7), overcame the early deficit by piling up 17 hits and scoring in six of the next seven innings to advance to a winner’s bracket game Saturday against UC Santa Barbara, which knocked off Oklahoma State 14-4 in the earlier game Friday. GCU will face Oklahoma State in an elimination game at 1 p.m. Saturday.

“They just keep coming,” GCU head coach Andy Stankiewicz said of the Wildcats’ hitters. “One through nine, they are very balanced. You’ve got to keep making pitches. If you’re not hitting your spot and keeping them off balance, you will run into some tough at bats. When we didn’t, they took advantage of it.”

The Lopes (39-20-1) nearly matched the Wildcats with 14 hits, but GCU surrendered seven extra-base hits – including home runs by Tony Bullard and Tanner O’Tremba – issued two bases-loaded walks and committed three errors defensively.

GCU starting pitcher Pierson Ohl (10-2) suffered only his second loss of the year, allowing four runs on nine hits in five innings of work.

“He wasn’t as sharp, his breaking ball wasn’t as crisp,” Stankiewicz said. “You leave a ball up against this ballclub, you’re going to get hit. But he’s been incredible all year long. You hate to take him out of this game, but we thought Nick Hull could come in with some velo(city) and shut the door.”

The Lopes scored two runs in the top of the first inning on four straight two-out hits by the freshman quartet of Jacob Wilson, Elijah Buries, Cade Verdusco and Tyler Wilson. They added two more in the second on an RBI single by Brock Burton and a run-scoring double by Jacob Wilson. But a diving catch by Arizona center fielder Donta Williams on a sinking liner by Buries prevented further damage.

“Huge play,” Arizona coach Jay Johnson said. “We wanted to keep it at four (runs) with a quality pitcher like Ohl going tonight and their bullpen. Williams was the Jim Thorpe award winner on that play and had a few big hits that would win him the Heisman.”

After Arizona battled back to take a 7-4 lead, GCU got within one run in the eighth inning after doubles by Tayler Aguilar and Jonny Weaver and an RBI single by Channy Ortiz. But the Wildcats piled on five runs on four hits and three walks in the bottom of the inning to put the game out of reach.

“We fought our way back into it,” Stankiewicz said, “but in the bottom of eighth we just couldn’t get an out. We just didn’t take care of the ball, they got some ball fours… you can’t give this team those kinds of opportunities.”

Jacob Wilson finished with three hits while Buries, Tyler Wilson and Weaver each had two. Six different players drove in runs for the Lopes. But it wasn’t enough to keep pace with the Wildcats.

“We knew going in this was one of the best offensive ballclubs in the country,” Weaver said. “For us making our first regional appearance, it was pretty special. I don’t think we shied away from the big lights here.”

More than 600 GCU fans made the trip to Tucson for the regional, making for a festive atmosphere among the 5,434 fans in attendance.

“We gave them something to cheer about early, not so much late,” Stankiewicz said. “They are faithful. We wish we could have given them a little more to cheer about in the end.”

GCU now faces an Oklahoma State team that went 2-0-1 against the Lopes in an early-season series. Stankiewicz said he will look at the matchups and consider using left-hander Connor Markl or righty Dawson McCarville as possible starting pitchers after using five pitchers Friday, including Zach Barnes who was used as a starter throughout the season.

“It’s do or die. Who doesn’t want to go home?” Stankiewicz said. “I know I don’t. I know our players don’t. They’re a great ballclub, great history. It’s not going to be easy. … We’ll do what we have to do to try and get a win tomorrow.”