The Arizona Wildcats entered their game against San Diego State on Tuesday in unfamiliar territory.
Arizona began the evening at 5-6. The Wildcats were below .500 for the first time since the first month of Jay Johnson’s first season.
The 2016 Cats started that campaign 2-3. They finished it as the national runners-up.
Any notion of the postseason is a distant thought for this Arizona squad. But there was a sense at Hi Corbett Field that the Wildcats needed to get something going, and soon. Pac-12 play begins a week from Friday.
After a slow start, Arizona sprung to life against SDSU, beating the Aztecs 13-4. SDSU entered Tuesday 8-3, with an RPI of 58.
"I thought we played to the identity of our team probably for the first time this year, and it won’t be the last," Johnson said. "We just needed to get it right.
"Baseball’s a tough game. We’ve faced a lot of good pitching. We’ve played in a bunch of adverse conditions. But we’re not going to allow those to be excuses. We’re going to play to that identity."
Arizona registered seasons highs in runs and hits (15) and improved to 5-0 at home. Alfonso Rivas III, Nick Quintana and Cesar Salazar each had three hits. Rivas clubbed a two-run homer and drove in four.
"This game kind of shows us that we’re capable of being the elite offense that we know we are," Rivas said. "We haven’t really showed it this season. Today kind of opened our eyes. It’s good to see that we can actually perform like this."
Although they had lost three straight, and five of seven, the Wildcats weren’t playing terrible baseball.
Five of their six losses had come by one run, the other by two. They featured all manner of heartbreak.
The first of three walk-off losses happened against San Diego State on Feb. 23. Arizona fell 3-2 in 10 innings, with the winning run scoring on a wild pitch.
One week later, the UA lost to Minnesota in the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge on a walk-off walk in the 12th. The next day, Illinois grabbed the lead in the top of the eighth on the fourth of four 3-2 walks in that half-inning. The Fighting Illini won 4-3.
Arizona concluded its trip to Minneapolis with a 3-2 loss to Michigan State. The Wildcats led the Spartans 2-0 entering the bottom of the ninth. MSU won it on a walk-off when Arizona couldn’t complete a double play to force extra innings.
"We flipped the switch tonight, fast," Johnson said. "It doesn’t mean we’re going to win. ... But I know how we’ll respond now. We haven’t responded good to this point. That was a step in the right direction."
The common denominator in those setbacks: a lack of offense. The Wildcats entered Tuesday hitting .208 as a team – 100 points lower than last season.
Arizona had reached double figures in hits in only one game before Tuesday. The Wildcats got there by the fourth inning against the Aztecs.
The lineup finally flashed its 2017 form in the bottom of the third. Rivas drove in a pair with a line single to center field. Quintana followed with an RBI single through the left side.
Those three runs gave Arizona a 4-3 lead. The Wildcats trailed 3-0 through an inning and a half.
Arizona gave itself some welcome breathing room in the fourth.
An error and a Cal Stevenson single made it 6-3. Rivas then smashed a two-run homer over the batter’s eye in center field.
The home run was the second of the season for Rivas — and the Wildcats.
The UA bullpen helped keep SDSU at bay. Starter Avery Weems struggled with his control and surrendered three runs in 1 2/3 innings.
Three relievers combined to pitch 6⅓ scoreless frames entering the ninth, including Juan Aguilera, who replaced Weems and threw a career-high three innings to earn the win.
Arizona scored twice more in the fifth on wild pitches, giving the Wildcats double-digit runs for the second time this year. They scored 10 or more five times in the first 10 games last season, when they led the Pac-12 in most offensive categories and reached the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.
There’s plenty of time to make up ground and make it three in a row. Tuesday was a good start.
- SDSU reliever Sean Ross was struck in the head by a Cesar Salazar line drive in the bottom of the eighth. Ross fell to the ground, and the crowd fell silent. After being tended to by a trainer, Ross was able to walk off the field.
- Arizona faces North Dakota State on Friday in the opener of a three-game home series.
- UA athletic director Dave Heeke attended the game and visited with reporters in the press box. Heeke will accompany the basketball team to the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas on Wednesday.
- Arizona drew 2,503 fans Tuesday and has eclipsed 2,000 in every home game this season.
- Members of the UA softball team sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”