TUCSON, Ariz. – Most of the time, the biggest fish are the hardest to reel in and put up the biggest fight. The ACU Wildcats found that to be very true on a gorgeous night for baseball at Hi Corbett Field.
But after a three-hour battle, they also found that catching the biggest fish provides the greatest reward. ACU hooked the biggest prize in program history Saturday night as the Wildcats knocked off Arizona, 6-5, in a tense game that belied the fact that it was the next-to-last game of the season for two teams who won't be moving on to the NCAA post-season.
After seeing starting pitcher Garrettt deMeyere go 6 2/3 solid innings, ACU head coach Britt Bonneau used four relievers over the final 2 1/3 innings to finish off the win. Nate Cole got the save when he coaxed a loud fly out to leftfielder Taylor Waters to end the game in the bottom of the ninth with the tying run at second base.
Arizona – a mere two seasons removed from winning the College World Series with a 4-1 win over South Carolina – jumps to the top of the list in terms of biggest name programs the Wildcats have a win over in their baseball history. Arizona has won four College World Series championships and made 16 appearances in Omaha, Neb., at the CWS.
Prior to Saturday night, the Wildcats were 0-9 this season against teams from three different power conferences (Big 12, SEC and Pac-12). But the "kids" that Bonneau is playing this season – including an entirely freshman infield Saturday night – have begun to grow up during the course of the last few weeks, and played fearlessly against Arizona.
"This win will be big for those freshmen and sophomores," said Bonneau, who recorded his 689th win in his 18th season at ACU. "It's big win because we're playing teams throughout the season (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Arizona State and Arizona) that year in and year out are battling to play in a regional tournament and trying to get to the College World Series.
"We're trying to figure out how far we have to go to get to the point where we're playing to get to a regional, and that's why we scheduled these games," he said. "I know that's a long way away (ACU won't be eligible for the post-season until 2018) and I know we have to get a lot better, but we have to play these games to be able to figure it all out."
Bonneau – who has been at ACU for almost all of the program's biggest wins – couldn't say if it tops the 2003 win over Delta State (Miss.) that sent the Wildcats to the NCAA Division II College World Series, but did say it will be a victory that pays dividends down the road for his young squad.
"i don't know where it ranks, but it's up there," he said. "We've struggled this year against big-time opponents. We've gotten blown out at Texas Tech and Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. But our guys have hung in there and they've started playing much better the last few weeks. I didn't sense any fear or intimidation about them (Tuesday night in a 4-2 loss at Arizona State) or the last two games against Arizona. I just know this is a great win for our program going forward, and now we have a chance to win the series."
The Wildcats have a chance to win the series because of the effort put in by starting pitcher Garrettt deMeyere. The crafty right-hander from Benbrook went 6 2/3 innings and allowed just one run on six hits and two walks. He gave up a run in the second inning that put Arizona briefly ahead, but then settled into a nice groove , working in and out of trouble in the third, fourth and fifth innings.
"Garrett gave us everything tonight that he's given us all year," Bonneau said. "He's a bulldog who chews up innings and works out of trouble. He was able to keep their hitters off-balance and keep them guessing. He worked a lot of quick innings early in the game, and that helped us keep him in the game longer, and that, in turn, helped our bullpen."
While deMeyere was shutting down Arizona's offense, ACU's offense was heating up in the middle innings against Arizona starter Cody Hamlin.
Trailing 1-0, the Wildcats got three two-out runs in the third inning to take a 3-1 lead. With two outs, No. 9 hitter and freshman catcher Connor Messman looked at a 2-2 pitch that was called a ball to run the count full. He took a walk when the next pitch sailed outside, and that set the ACU offense in motion.
Freshman second baseman Aaron Draper – batting in the leadoff spot because ACU was missing senior Seth Spivey, who was injured in Friday's 4-3 loss – singled to centerfield to give the Wildcats runners at first and second with two out. Colton Hall then delivered an RBI single to drive in Messman to knot the game at 1-1. Junior centerfielder Tyler Eager then singled to drive in Draper and Hall to give ACU a 3-1 lead, an advantage it wouldn't relinquish.
ACU – which scored five runs with two outs – got another two run in the fifth when Draper lined a two-out single to center and scored on Hall's triple to right field, pushing the Wildcats' advantage to 4-1. The Wildcats made it a 5-1 game in the seventh when Gunnar Buhner reached on a single, went to second on an errant pickoff throw and moved to third on a groundout by Messman. Draper then hit a two-hopper at Arizona shortstop Kevin Newman, who bobbled it and never made a throw, allowing Buhner to score and give ACU a four-run advantage.
deMeyere got the first out of the seventh inning before giving up a single to pinch-hitter Willie Calhoun. He then struck out Cody Ramer before giving up a single to No. 9 hitter Joseph Maggi. That's when Bonneau went to get deMeyere and bring in his closer, Kevin Sheets, to face Arizona leadoff man extraordinaire, Zach Gibbons. Sheets got a huge out in the game by striking out Gibbons – only his 22nd strikeout of the season – to keep ACU's lead at 6-1.
But Sheets immediately ran into trouble in the eighth when he gave up a leadoff single to Newman, who then went to second on a balk. Sheets then hit Scott Kingery to bring cleanup hitter Trent Gilbert to the plate. Gilbert sent a rocket to right field, but Colton Hall made the catch in the spacious confines of Hi Corbett's outfield (405 to right-centerfield; 360 to right; 349 down the rightfield line). Both runners, however, advanced on the deep fly ball.
After Sheets got Tyler Krause to strike out for the second out, he quickly jumped ahead of Riley Moore 0-2 before Moore sent a fastball shooting out to right field. Hall got turned around and banged into the wall as the ball hit the wall and bounced away, allowing both runners to score and cutting ACU's lead to 6-3. That was all for Sheets, who gave way to Ladgie Zotyka, who immediately had his bit of bad luck. He got a ground ball to shortstop Brandon Grudzielanek from Calhoun, and it looked as if the inning would end with ACU's lead still at 6-3. But at the last moment, the ball hit the lip of the infield grass and shot over Grudzielanek's head into left-centerfield for an RBI single to make it 6-4. Zotyka, however, got Maggi to swing over the top of a 3-2 fastball to end the eighth with ACU still clinging to a 6-4 lead.
Nick Palacios started the ninth and got a huge out when he retired Gibbons on a hard-hit ground ball to Draper at second base. But then he gave up a single to Newman before getting Kingery to fly out to Eager in center for the second out. But on the first pitch that Gilbert saw from Palacios, he sent a shot into the rightfield corner to drive in Newman to cut ACU's lead to 6-5.
After Palacios delivered a ball to Krause, Bonneau came out of the dugout and signaled for Cole to enter the game. After losing his spot in the starting rotation after his start against Sam Houston State on April 11, Cole had only thrown 1 2/3 innings in two appearances (May 11 at Oral Roberts and May 16 at Incarnate Word) since that game.
But he needed just four pitches to retire Krause, who hit a long fly ball into the gap in left-centerfield that hung up just long enough for Waters to move over and squeeze the ball for the game's final out.
deMeyere picked up the win to finish his season at 5-8, while Cole was credited with his second save. ACU (18-35) and Arizona (21-33) will close out the series and their respective seasons Sunday at noon (2 p.m. Abilene time). ACU senior left-hander Brady Rodriguez – who went seven strong innings Tuesday night against Arizona State – will get the start for ACU.