CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Call it the Chip Expiration.
Arizona coach Chip Hale walked into the media room at Alex Rodriguez Park and breathed a sigh of relief. His Wildcats had just survived a comeback from Canisius, holding the Golden Griffins 7-5 on Sunday in a playoff game in the Coral Gables Regional of the NCAA tournament.
“You never stop sweating here,” Hale said.
It wasn’t clear if he meant that literally or figuratively.
Arizona — which was scheduled to face No. 6-seeded Miami in another playoff game later on Sunday — led Canisius 6-1 entering in the bottom of the fifth inning. The Griffins scored twice in the fifth and twice more in the sixth to make it a one-point game.
The Wildcats defense and bullpen came out strong late in the inning, completing an offense that hit four home runs.
“I just want to tip my cap to Canisius,” Hale said after recording his first NCAA Tournament victory as a UA coach. “They played their tails in both games. They were very good today in a difficult situation – as hot a start as possible. They fought us to the end.
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“I’m very proud of our team who came out after sleeping little, being tough, fighting hard and doing whatever it took to win the game.”
Arizona’s loss to Ole Miss on Saturday began at 10:13 p.m. local time. It ended at 1:19 a.m. The Wildcats arrived at the ballpark less than eight hours later to begin warming up for the Griffins.
After defeating Canisius, the team returned to their hotel to shower, do laundry, and possibly take a short nap. The Cats were scheduled to get back on the bus at 5:15 p.m. for their third game in less than 24 hours.
“If you can’t be ready for a playoff game…I don’t know,” said shortstop Nik McClaughry, who hit a three-run homer and started a critical double play. “It’s the playoffs. It’s time to win.
Despite the quick turnaround and early start, Arizona came out ready to play.
McClaughry walked to start the game – matching the number of unintentional walks on Saturday night – and scored on Chase Davis’ two-run homer on the right. It was the second home run in as many games for Davis, whose status was in question this weekend with a shoulder injury.
Senior Blake Paugh, slotted into the lineup at DH against southpaw Chris Pouliot, hit a solo homer in the second to make it 3-0. Paugh hit another solo shot in the seventh.
McClaughry doubled Arizona’s production in the fourth inning, hitting a three-run homer to left center to make it 6-1. The junior bounced back in spectacular fashion on Sunday morning after retiring all four at bats against Ole Miss.
“I have a pretty good process once I leave the field: this game is over,” McClaughry said. “So I’ll go through it now and be ready to play tonight.”
The Golden Griffins, however, proved to be a nuisance. They also benefited from numerous self-inflicted injuries by UA pitching personnel. Canisius scored two runs apiece in the fifth and sixth to make it 6-5 and had the tying run at second base. Reliever George Arias Jr. took out Mike Steffan who was looking to end the threat.
Arias and Quinn Flanagan combined for 3 1/3 scoreless innings to end the game. Flanagan made his first save of the season. Their experience and maturity clearly made the difference. Freshman Eric Orloff struggled after relieving starter TJ Nichols, as did redshirt freshman Javyn Pimental on Saturday night.
“It’s tough for these young pitchers,” Hale said. “It’s the hits, it’s the walks, it’s the batters hit (where) they end up in big trouble in college baseball. We can handle the beatings.
“It’s a good experience for them. And guess what? They will be back there (Sunday evening). So I hope this experience helps.
Nichols put together his second straight strong start in the playoffs after a rocky end to the regular season. He allowed three earned runs on five hits in five innings. He walked two batters and struck out four. He also threw two wild pitches and hit three batters. Nichols leads the team in both categories with 13 apiece.
A defensive gem got Nichols out of major trouble in the fifth. With the score 6-3, one out and the bases loaded, McClaughry one-hoppered Gibson Krzeminski’s bat. McClaughry fell to his back but managed to fire a shot to his legs at second baseman Garen Caulfield to kick off a late-inning double play.
“You don’t really think when it happens,” McClaughry said. “The ball was hit pretty hard. So I had to step back and grab it like that. (McClaughry leans back and raises his hands to his right shoulder.)
“I just remember throwing it and … hopefully throwing it until the second. Otherwise, he could have gone into right field.
McClaughry’s throw to Caulfield couldn’t have been better placed.
“He’s the best shortstop in the country,” Paugh said. “We are waiting for it.”
Paugh’s second homer gave Arizona a two-run lead. Arias then hit the side in the bottom of the seventh.
Flanagan came in with two outs in the eighth and blocked a runner in the third. He threw a 1-2-3 ninth. Hale didn’t rule out Flanagan throwing again against the host Hurricanes late Sunday.
“Anything is possible at this point,” Hale said. “It’s tough guy time.”
Contact sportswriter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or [email protected] On Twitter @michaeljlev