PHOENIX — The Arizona Wildcats’ usually potent lineup didn’t have its best stuff Thursday night. Neither did UA senior starter JC Cloney.
The Wildcats won anyway.
No. 17 Arizona squeaked past rival Arizona State 6-5 in the opener of a three-game series at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on Thursday.
Actually, the Wildcats squeezed past the Sun Devils.
On an immaculate spring night when hard contact was hard to come by, UA coach Jay Johnson had to resort to a seldom-used tactic that also happens to be one of his favorites: the two-run suicide squeeze.
With the score tied 3-3 and the bases loaded in the top of the seventh, Johnson sent the runners. Alfonso Rivas bunted toward second base. Left-handed reliever Connor Higgins fielded the ball and flipped to first to retire Rivas.
Louis Boyd, who had been on third, waltzed home. Cal Stevenson, who had been on second, came screaming in behind him. First baseman Taylor Lane’s throw to the plate was slightly high and up the third-base line. Stevenson slid headfirst, eluding the tag of catcher Lyle Lin.
“We know how to compete when our stuff is not there,” Rivas said. “We’re going to find a way to score runs and win ball games.”
Arizona added another run in the seventh on an error. ASU scored one in the seventh and one in the ninth. Tylor Megill got the final four outs for his second save.
The win was Arizona’s third in a row. The Wildcats (34-17, 13-12 Pac-12) took a 2-1 lead in the season series against the Sun Devils (23-27, 8-17). The UA can clinch the baseball Territorial Cup with a victory Friday or Saturday.
JJ Matijevic struck out on three pitches before Rivas got his bunt down. Up to that point, Matijevic had provided almost all the offense for Arizona.
When Matijevic came to the plate with two on and two out in the top of the fifth, the Wildcats barely had gotten the ball out of the infield. They had four hits off right-hander Eder Erives – all bloopers – and one run.
But Matijevic has feasted on ASU pitching throughout his career, and this at-bat was no different. Matijevic drilled a 1-2 pitch off the right-field wall for a two-RBI double to give Arizona a 3-1 lead.
As was the case when the Wildcats were up 1-0, the Sun Devils responded immediately. With one out in the bottom of the fifth, Gage Canning smashed a solo home run off the top of the scoreboard in right-center. A walk and two infield singles loaded the bases. Lane scored the tying run on a wild pitch.
Cloney lasted into the sixth inning but didn’t have his typical pinpoint control. Cloney was credited with 17 first-pitch strikes among 26 batters faced. He threw 96 pitches in all, 60 for strikes. He struck out seven in 5ª innings but walked three.
“It wasn’t an easy park to pitch in tonight,” Johnson said. “I thought he gave us everything he possibly could.”
• Matijevic’s double in the fifth was his 26th of the season, tying him with Terry Francona and Willie Morales for third most in a season at Arizona. With 56 career doubles, Matijevic is tied with Chip Hale for sixth on the UA’s all-time list.
• Rivas had three RBIs, marking the third time in the past six games he has had three or more.
• Stevenson scored three runs, the eighth time he has had three or more in a game this season.
• Junior Ryan Haug, normally the Wildcats’ backup catcher, made his second consecutive start in left field.
• Game 2 of the series is slated for 7 p.m. Friday. Junior left-hander Cameron Ming will start for Arizona.