With its late-season ability to pull out victories, the UA baseball team is putting the "wild" in Wildcats — and now it has a chance to claim a second NCAA championship in five years.
Cesar Salazar singled with two outs and the bases loaded in the 11th inning to score Kyle Lewis and give Arizona a 6-5 victory Saturday over host Mississippi State, capturing the Starkville Super Regional and advancing to the NCAA College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
The UA, which will be making its 17th trip to the CWS, won the national championship in 2012. The surprising Wildcats (44-21), picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12 Conference before the season, will open play at 5 p.m. MST on Saturday against Miami (Fla.). Also in their four-team CWS bracket are Oklahoma State and UC Santa Barbara. The other bracket will have Texas Tech, TCU, Coastal Carolina and the winner of the Super Regional series between Florida and Florida State.
The previous weekend, Arizona had to win three successive elimination games in a day and a half — two against host Louisiana-Lafayette — to take the rain-delayed Lafayette Regional. Then the Wildcats, after defeating Mississippi State, 1-0, on Friday, had to dig themselves out of a 5-1 hole Saturday before a partisan crowd of 13,452 at Dudy Noble Field in Starkville.
After back-to-back singles in the eighth inning from Alfonso Rivas and Zach Gibbons, Ryan Aguilar hit a three-run home run to make it 5-4. The homer was Aguilar's team-leading eighth of the season. The next two batters, JJ Matijevic and Bobby Dalbec, both singled, but Arizona couldn't get them across the plate and went to the ninth trailing by a run.
Rivas singled in the ninth to score Cody Ramer and tie the game at five. Two innings later, Salazar's hit won the game.
Cameron Ming, who pitched two scoreless innings in relief, earned the win for Arizona. Starter Nathan Bannister, who went 2-0 in two starts in the Lafayette Regional, pitched into the seventh inning for the Wildcats.
"I pride myself on knowing the right thing to say, but I'm speechless right now," first-year head coach Jay Johnson said after the game. "This is the best moment of my life."
Said Greg Byrne, the UA's director of athletics:
"We had a good idea when we hired Coach Johnson that we’d make a visit or two to Omaha, but I’m not sure anyone thought it would happen in year one. This is a testament to the hard work, dedication and belief throughout the entire program, and now we get a chance to play on a national stage at one of the best events in sports."
Watch the welcome that the Wildcats received upon returning to Tucson from Mississippi: