HOUSTON, TX- There are screenwriters in Hollywood that wouldn’t be able to script a better start to the Jay Johnson era at the University of Arizona.
The first-year head coach has now led his team to back-to-back road wins over the Rice Owls, clinching a series win for his Wildcats.
In the opener on Friday night, his charges scored early against the Owls and then just continued to add on. On Saturday, against Rice starter Jon Duplantier, it was a little different story.
Cody Ramer led off the game with a double, was moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Jared Oliva, and then scored on a Ryan Aguilar double to put the Wildcats up 1-0. But that was all the scoring that would occur for quite some time, as Duplantier and his mount mate, Arizona’s Cameron Ming, settled in.
Duplantier flashed his premium stuff, including a fastball into the mid-90s and a sharp breaking ball, and had a quality outing (6 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 5 K), but Ming largely matched him with 6.1 innings of work, giving up six hits and two runs with three walks and three strikeouts.
Johnson had high praise for his lefty starter.
“(He was) spectacular. I kind of had a feeling that there were a couple of guys that would be key to this team’s success pretty quickly and I knew he would be one of them. He’s made a jump in terms of his conditioning, so to be able to start and expand like that in the first weekend is really awesome. I’m proud of him. He’s put in a lot of work, developed some new pitches, and he did a great job today,” he said.
The Wildcats did manage to play add-on in the seventh inning, once Glenn Otto had come on in relief, as Ramer (more on him in a bit) doubled home Justin Behnke, who had reached on a two-out single.
In the bottom of the seventh, it looked like that run was going to be much-needed, as Rice came storming back.
With one out, Ryan Chandler singled and Connor Tekyl followed that up with a double, putting runners at second and third. After pinch-hitter Hunter Kopycinski was hit by a pitch, freshman Ford Proctor singled home Chandler to make it 2-1. Bobby Dalbec entered the game and was greeted by a Grayson Lewis sacrifice fly, scoring Tekyl, tying the game at 2-2.
We had a brand-new ballgame, but little did we know at the time that the game was about to go off the rails.
In what turned out to be a four-run eighth inning, Arizona employed a high-pressure, small-ball game that forced some sloppy play from the Owls.
Aguilar led off the inning with a single. Then, Dalbec, one of the most feared power hitters in the entire country, dropped down a near-perfect bunt to third. He was thrown out at first base by Dane Myers, but with third base unoccupied, Aguilar took third.
Louis Boyd followed that up with a squeeze bunt up the first base line. Fox fielded and tried to get Aguilar coming home, but not only did Aguilar slide in safely, the throw got away from catcher Hunter Kopycinski, allowing Boyd to move into second. Zach Gibbons then singled on a slow dribbler to third, moving runners to the corners, and Gibbons promptly swiped second.
Sawyer Gieseke kept it rolling with a squeeze bunt of his own, scoring Gibbons easily. The throw to first from Myers to try to get Gieseke pulled Fox off of first base, allowing Gieseke to reach and allowing Boyd to score from second on the play. Fox, in trying to nail Boyd at home, threw the ball to the backstop, moving Gieseke to second. He was moved to third in short order on a wild pitch, and then came home on a Cesar Salazar sac fly. Only when Justin Behnke was set down on strikes after that did the inning end.
When it was all said and done, the Arizona half of the eighth featured four runs, two hits, and three Rice errors.
That ended up being more than enough for Dalbec, as the big righty set the Owls down in the last two innings relatively quickly for his first win of the season in his team’s 6-2 victory.
It was his team’s ability to win what was a close game throughout, and a very different game from the previous night, that Johnson singled out as a point of pride for him.
“To come out last night and play solid and then to really be in a tight game today and to be able to find a way to win rather unconventionally is a good start. I’m proud of our players,” he said.
Ramer and Aguilar were the offensive stars of the game for the Wildcats, as the pair collecting eight of the team’s 11 hits. The latter was 4-for-5 on the night, while the former was a perfect 4-for-4 with a walk, continuing his hot start to the season. On opening night, he went 2-for-4 with two RBI. In 2015, Ramer hit .178 and had all of eight hits for the entire season. For the 2016 season, with six hits already, he is three-quarters of the way to equaling last season’s total. At this rate, he might surpass last season’s total by the end of the weekend. He places his improvements at the plate at the feet of this first-year coaching staff.
“They (the coaching staff) did a complete 180 with my swing and helped me out more than I could have ever imagined. I want to give that to them. They’ve really helped me,” he said.
It’s only the first weekend of the season, but already, the Wildcats will have plenty to take with them the rest of the way.
“It’s all about staying (together) as a team. As we showed today, everybody contributed. It wasn’t just one solid thing that made that win. Staying as one team and being a unit will pay off in the end for us,” Ramer said.
Johnson has a similar takeaway from the first two games of the season.
“Every game is not about the team with the best players, but the team that plays the best, and for two days, we’ve played the best. There’s enough good players in the dugout to where if we do that, they’ll have a chance to get rewarded. We’ve got a tough road ahead. The Pac-12 every year is great, but this particular year is pretty special and talented, so we’re not going to get too far ahead of ourselves. It’s really one game at a time. We call it 58 Super Bowls, and it was good to win Super Bowl 2,” he said.