LUBBOCK – It was far from textbook, but the Sam Houston State Bearkats got just what they were looking for on Friday in holding on for a 5-4 win over Arizona on the first day of the Lubbock Regional at Dan Law Field at Rip Griffin Park.
The Bearkats (41-20) used six different pitchers who scattered 13 Wildcats (37-20) hits but never surrendered the lead after Robie Rojas' go-ahead three-run home run in the top of the sixth. But it was far from easy in a game that was delayed more than three hours due to inclement weather in the area and did not finish until after the clock had passed midnight.
With the win the Bearkats move on to face Texas Tech on Saturday at 6 p.m. The Red Raiders, who are the top seed in the region and the No. 5 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, advanced with a 5-2 win earlier in the day over Delaware.
AT THE PLATE
The Kats finished with 10 hits on the night with five players picking up a pair. Rojas was one of those, reaching base in three of four plate appearances, singling in the first inning to set up the first Sam Houston run before blasting a 1-0 pitch from JC Cloney out to center field to put the Kats in front for good at 4-1 in the top of the sixth.
Joining Rojas with multi-hit games were Bryce Johnson, Hunter Hearn, Taylor Beene and Clayton Harp. Beene delivered what proved to be the game-winning RBI with a single in the seventh, while Harp also scored a pair of runs.
ON THE BUMP
It took six pitchers to navigate the night's nine innings, and Sam Houston needed every one of them to work past an Arizona lineup that put at least one runner on base in each inning. Freshman Kyle Backhus got the nod with his fourth start of the year and took a no-decision despite, striking out three in 3 1-3 innings of work.
Dakota Mills worked out of a tricky fourth inning before giving way to Riley Cooper, who picked up his second win of the year with 2 1-3 innings that saw him punch out a pair. Colin Cameron and Dominic Robinson each tossed 2-3 of an inning, but it was Nick Mikolajchak who got the game's final four outs for his 11th save of the season.
The freshman stopper struck out three of the five batters he faced, all coming with the tying run in scoring position. The first was against Wildcat All-American JJ Matejevic to close out the eighth with the tying run on second. The final two came after a one-out double by Alfonso Rivas in the ninth, punching out Ryan Haug and Nick Quintana to slam the door.
HOW IT HAPPENED
The Bearkats struck first after a clean inning from Backhus as consecutive singles by Harp and Rojas quickly put a pair of runners on base to start the top of the second. One batter later Blake Chisolm beat out a potential double play and a wide throw by Wildcat shortstop Louis Boyd allowed Harp to cross home to give the Kats a 1-0 lead.
Backhus worked around a single to put up a zero in the bottom of the inning, but found himself quickly in a bind in the home half of the third. Arizona opened the inning with three consecutive singles, the last of the bunt variety by Cal Stevenson, loading the bases for Matejevic. The Wildcat slugger managed to tie it up at 1-1 on an RBI fielder's choice, but Backhus was able to keep the damage at a minimum by retiring both Jared Oliva and Rivas to keep the go-ahead run on third base.
An inning later Quintana just missed his seventh homer of the year, doubling off the center-field wall with one out. A walk to Cesar Salazar followed, spelling the end of the night for Backhus after 3 1-3 innings of work. Mills entered in relief and Kyle Lewis came up with a sure single to right field, but Hunter Hearn delivered a one-hop strike to get Quintana at the plate and keep the game knotted at a run apiece.
The Kats had to work out of another jam in the bottom of the fifth, and then went back to work in the top of the sixth. After a one-out single by Johnson gave the Kats a base runner, Harp kept the inning alive with his second hit of the night. That brought up Rojas who launched a 1-0 pitch over the fence to the right-field side of the batter's eye to surge Sam Houston in front 4-1.
Arizona would get one back in the bottom of the sixth on an RBI ground out by Salazar after Haug had opened the inning with a triple to center. Sam Houston answered right back, taking advantage of a leadoff single from Hearn in the seventh. Lance Miles was able to bunt him into scoring position before Beene did the rest, rifling a single to left, upping the lead back to 5-2.
Once again, though, the Wildcats pushed back in the bottom half of the seventh. RBI singles from Oliva and Rivas trimmed the lead back to 5-4 with the tying run on third base. Again, the Kats turned to the pen, this time for Cameron who fielded a squeeze bunt attempt from Haug and underhanded to Rojas to get Oliva at the plate for the second out. One batter later Quintana flew out to Hearn in right field and the Kats maintained the one-run advantage.
Things got dicey in the eighth after Robinson issued consecutive two-out walks to both Lewis ad Boyd, bringing Matejevic to the plate. That prompted the Kats to turn to Mikolajchak who got Matejevic swinging at a 1-2 pitch to end the inning.
The freshman returned to the hill for the ninth and after Oliva flied out to start the inning, Rivas delivered his third hit of the game, looping a double just inside the left-field line. But Mikolajchak was able to get Haug swinging at a 2-2 pitch for the second out and ran the count full on Quintana before the Wildcat third baseman swung through strike three to send the Kats ahead in the winner's bracket.
- With the win, the Bearkats have now won at least one game in each of their last five regionals dating back to 2012.
- Robie Rojas' sixth-inning home run was the first by a Bearkat in an NCAA Regional since Anthony Azar homered against Louisiana in the 2013 regional.
- The win over Arizona was the fifth consecutive win for the Bearkats over a top-25 opponent. It is also the sixth win this year over a ranked opponent, the most in program history.
Head coach Matt Deggs on starting left-hander Kyle Backhus vs. Arizona…
“We have some really good depth on the bump. I liked the matchup with some of those lefties. To be frank with you, this is a program that is unafraid to crash and burn. We showed up here to make some noise. We felt like Heath Donica would give us our best chance against whoever won that first game. That second game in most tournaments and especially in a four-team regional is the most important game. It's a good feeling knowing we have our guy on the mound.”
Head coach Matt Deggs on cutting down the runner on the squeeze play…
“I figured it was coming. Runs were at a premium for both clubs tonight. They weren't coming easy. At that point, they are just trying to score another run. If they had it back, they'd probably place it a little better. Colin Cameron, who we brought in to face the righty, is super athletic. He made a very pivotal play. You have that play, Hunter Hearn's play on the hit and run and Beene's play that probably saved us the game.”
Head coach Matt Deggs on the performance of the freshman pitching…
“They've done it all year. We play in a very scrappy league. Our league can really hit. It's a league that guys grow older in. They learn how to hit. They've seen a slider before. They're some older kids and it makes it a grind. All these freshmen – Backhus, Robinson, Miko – they've all been thrown into the fire. This was a bigger stage against an opponent that played for a national championship last year so the stakes were higher. It was good to see them pitch the way they did.”
Catcher Robie Rojas on the three-run home run and the recent hot streak…
“Before the game we discussed that he was going to soft away then come hard in and that's exactly what he did. He just left the breaking ball up. When you have guys like Hearn and Chisolm and Harp in front of you, they don't want to pitch to those guys. It's a lot easier for me to hit knowing they're going to attack me.”
Hunter Hearn on the defensive play…
“I know they had the hit and run on. I knew that guy was fast. I looked up and just threw the ball like I would in in-and-out. Arizona is a great team. They made some defensive plays too. We had a lot of outs at the plate tonight which was huge for us. They kept pounding the ball but it's our job to stop that.”
Nick Mikolajchak on his performance and that scenario…
“Everybody who sees me knows I am a fiery competitor. I come into a lot of hairy situations. I am thankful coach trusts me with those. I love coming in with the pressure. I know I have my guys behind me to play D. I knew it wouldn't be a cakewalk. Those guys can really swing it.”