After Arizona lost its second straight game to Ball State on Sunday, Wildcats coach Jay Johnson announced that freshman TJ Nichols would start the series finale Monday.
Nichols’ veteran teammates assured him the had he no added pressure on his shoulders — even though a third consecutive defeat would have qualified as a calamity for the Cats.
“Just pitch your game,” they told Nichols. “You’re going to be fine.”
Easy for them to say.
The hard-throwing right-hander from Roseville, California, surrendered a hit on the first pitch he threw as a collegian. He allowed baserunners in his first four innings. But he never lost his cool, kept battling and worked his way through it.
Nichols also got a ton of help from his teammates. Arizona scored in every inning for the first time in almost eight years and defeated Ball State 11-5 to split their season-opening four-game series and give Nichols his first career victory.
Nichols, a touted prospect with a fastball in the mid-90s, allowed two runs in five innings. He yielded seven hits and two walks while striking out three batters. He threw 51 of 74 pitches for strikes.
“I thought he had really good composure,” Johnson said. “Some of the pitching this weekend, guys allowed it to snowball on them when something went bad. He didn’t do that. He stayed present pitch to pitch.
“I was most (impressed) that he had traffic on the bases but he never let anything get away from him. He’s an outstanding player, and that’s matched by his character and the type of person he is.
“He’ll do a lot of great things for us here, and I’m sure that’ll be the first of many wins for him.”
Nichols teamed with classmate Jacob Berry to make what Johnson described as “the most important play of the game.”
Trailing 3-0 in the third inning, Ball State strung together four hits in five-at-bats. Two runs came across, and the Cardinals had runners on second and third with one out.
On an 0-1 pitch, Ball State’s Adam Christianson hit a line drive toward Nichols. The freshman, who came to Arizona as a two-way player, snatched the ball and fired it to Berry, who doubled off Trenton Quartermaine to end the threat.
“That was a huge play,” Nichols said. “I already gave up two in the inning. I knew we had to make a play. I knew I had to make a pitch.
“I saw it come back at me. It wasn’t hit hard, but I got it. Thankfully Berry was there at third, and we got it done. It fired me up.
“It was a big moment. I don’t think at the time I realized it. I just stayed composed.”
Berry sparked the offense with a 3-for-3 performance. The switch-hitter from Queen Creek had gone 0 for 6 in his first three games.
In his first career at-bat Friday, which resulted in a strikeout, Berry said he was “trying to hit the ball about 500 feet.” He became less anxious as the series progressed.
“Getting a few games in helped,” said Berry, who had a double, a walk and two RBIs. “Also just playing the game and not pressing as much today as I have been the last few days. ... Realizing it’s just baseball. Just relaxing and playing the game.”
The lineup as a whole took a better approach in run-scoring situations. The Wildcats batted .367 (11 for 30) with runners on base and .286 (6 for 21) with runners in scoring position. They were under .200 in both categories over the first three games.
“I wouldn’t give us an ‘A’ by any stretch,” Johnson said. “We did a good job. It’s something we’ve got to keep working on. It’s a staple. We’ve got to play to our identity, because when we do, we have a lot of success. When we don’t, we obviously made it really hard on ourselves.”
Although Ball State might exceed its preseason projections, a series split wasn’t what Johnson or his team had in mind. Arizona dropped from 15th to 23rd in Baseball America’s Top 25, released Monday.
But the Wildcats avoided losing a non-conference home series for the first time in Johnson’s tenure. He also learned things about his team that only could reveal themselves in real games.
“I don’t ever want it to come at the expense of winning, but I have a lot more understanding of where some of the pieces fit than I did going into the series,” Johnson said. “That’s the positive I’m going to take from it.
“I’m very disappointed in the weekend, and that’s to take nothing away from Ball State. That’s a very good team. It’s an excellent pitching staff. They have some really gritty, tough-minded position players that are going to win a lot of games, I’m just disappointed that we left a lot on the table.”
- Johnson operated from the dugout while Arizona was at bat instead of coaching third base. Dave Lawn shifted from first to third, while Marc Wanaka coached first. Johnson said the goal was “improved communication with the players and improved communication with the coaching staff, so that we were in a position that I want us to be in relative to approach, relative to in-game adjustments, relative to personnel.” Johnson will continue to work from the dugout for the foreseeable future. He hadn’t done so, he said, since 2005.
- The last time Arizona scored at least one run in every inning came in an 18-3 win over Alabama State on April 28, 2013.
- DH Ryan Holgate went 1 for 2 with two walks and two RBIs. He leads the team in batting (.429), home runs (one) and RBIs (seven).
- First baseman Branden Boissiere and shortstop Jacob Blas combined to go 5 for 10 with two RBIs.
- Second-year catcher Kaden Hopson made his first career start and had his first hit, going 1 for 3 with an RBI. He also threw out a would-be base stealer in the first.
- UA hitters drew eight walks Monday and 34 for the series. UA pitchers yielded 18 bases on balls (two intentional).
- Arizona hosts Southeastern Louisiana for a four-game series starting Thursday. The Lions opened with a three-game sweep of Mississippi Valley State, outscoring the Delta Devils 66-0.