OMAHA, Neb. — The Arizona Wildcats’ baseball season was hanging in the balance earlier this year when coach Andy Lopez adopted a new mantra.
One in a row.
“I told them, ‘I don’t know if you can win 25 games in a row, but I’ve seen you win one in a row,” he said.
Now, the UA needs to win just one more.
Robert Refsynder ripped a first-inning home run and Konner Wade pitched his second complete game in a week as the Wildcats defeated South Carolina 5-1 tonight in the College World Series Finals opener.
The UA (47-17) can claim its first national championship since 1986 by winning just one of its next two games. Arizona will face the two-time defending champions again tonight; the teams will meet again Tuesday, if necessary. The Wildcats’ players are aware of the Omaha stakes, but will try not to be overwhelmed by them. The one-in-a-row stuff is old hat by now: Arizona has won 10 consecutive games and 17 of its last 19. The club has yet to trail in the College World Series.
“We’re not dumb. We don’t want to treat it like any other game. It’s the national title series,” shortstop Alex Mejia said. “But to a certain extent, we do treat it like any other games. We need to move runners. We need to get the sacrifice flies. … As long as we do those things, I think we’ll do great.”
Arizona stuck to its familiar formula — score early, and lean on starting pitching — in the CWS opener, played in front of 24,748 fans.
Refsnyder drove in the Wildcats' first two runs with his blast, which came off Gamecocks starter Forrest Koumas with one out in the first inning. Koumas challenged Refsnyder with a 91 mph outside fastball, which he crushed into the right field bullpen; the homer scored Johnny Field, who had reached with a one-out single.
“I was fortunate enough to run into it,” said Refsnyder, who finished 2 for 3 with a pair of walks. “Sometimes, if you close your eyes and swing really hard, good things happen.”
Mejia added an RBI single in the third to make it 3-0, and the Wildcats added single runs in the fifth and seventh innings to pull away.
Wade (11-3) was stellar, surrendering one run on six hits while striking out three and walking one. In doing so, Wade became the first pitcher since 2004 to throw two complete games in a College World Series.
Arizona’s defense kept Wade rolling. Mejia dove for a ground ball up the middle with nobody out in the first inning and, from his belly, started a double play. First baseman Joe Maggi speared a two-hopper with two on in the sixth, ending a rally.
One inning later, Refsnyder wiped out the Gamecocks’ only major threat. Adam Matthews led off the inning with a single and, when Kyle Martin followed with a hit to right field, tried to advance all the way to third. Refsnyder charged the ball and uncorked a one-hop throw to Seth Mejias-Brean at third base, and Matthews was called out.
Wade retired the next two batters, ending the frame.
Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said Refsnyder “had to make a perfect throw to third, and he did.”
“That’s why he’s one of the better players in the country. He’s able to do things like that.”
Refsnyder and Johnny Field each finished with two hits, and catcher Riley Moore stroked three singles in four at-bats. Seth Mejias-Brean made a first-inning error at third base, and hit into an inning-ending double play in the third inning, but redeemed himself with an RBI single in the fifth.
Arizona is hitting .297 in the College World Series, while holding its opponents to a .211 clip. Moore is hitting an even .500, while Refsnyder is batting .444 with a team-high two home runs, eight hits, five RBIs and 14 total bases. Tonight's run might have been the Wildcats’ hardest-hit ball of the tournament.
“He has really good power, and he crushed it,” Mejia said.
Though they led the entire game, the Wildcats still graded out at “about a B”, Lopez said. The club stranded 11 runners on base, seven in scoring position. The originators of the “no doubles” craze managed just one extra base hit: Refsnyder’s homer. They failed to move runners over in the third, and hit into double plays in back-to-back innings.
Yet the Wildcats played well enough to move to within one game of a championship. They’ll have to play even better tonight to win it.
South Carolina (49-19) will start left-handed ace Michael Roth (Michael Roth) (9-1, 2.49 ERA) the elimination game, the Gamecocks’ third of this year’s tournament. Lopez was unsure who to start when he went to bed tonight, but will likely select right-hander James Farris (James Farris) (7-3, 4.18 ERA). Ace Kurt Heyer (Kurt Heyer) would then be free to pitch in Tuesday’s winner-take-all game, should it come to that.
But that’s two game away. For now, the Wildcats just need to win one in a row.
“Hopefully,” Lopez said, “we can put another together another one tomorrow.”