GCU upsets host Arizona to open NCAA regional

Photo - David Kadlubowski/GCU Athletics

Pelc knocks in 4 runs; Richardson, Lyon pitch Lopes to 1st NCAA D-I tourney win

(Tucson, AZ)  The largest crowd in Arizona baseball’s Hi Corbett Field history showed up for its NCAA regional opener Friday night and saw Grand Canyon deliver the greatest win of its Division I era.

GCU claimed its first NCAA Division I baseball tournament win, seeing red in a crowd of 8,798 fans and channeling it to upset the national No. 13 seed Wildcats 9-4. As the only regional fourth seed besides Evansville to win in 16 regionals Friday, the Lopes (35-23) will return to Hi Corbett Field at 7 p.m. Saturday for a winner’s bracket game against West Virginia (33-22), which defeated Dallas Baptist 4-1 earlier Friday.

The Lopes backed up taking two of three games from the Pac-12 champions during the season by combining senior left fielder Tyler Wilson’s leadoff home run and senior right fielder Eddy Pelc’s three-run double with the pitching of sophomores Grant Richardson and Isaac Lyon.

“I haven’t really sunk in about the historic side of it,” GCU head coach Gregg Wallis said. “I’m just excited that we came here, and we played great baseball. That one was our whole goal. I told the boys after the game that I’m proud of them not because of what the scoreboard said after the game. Just because of the way we went about it with some intent to play great baseball.”

GCU trailed 3-2 after five innings against Arizona’s hottest pitcher, graduate right-hander Clark Candiotti, before loading the bases in the sixth inning on senior center fielder Cade Verdusco’s leadoff walk, sophomore first baseman Zach Yorke’sinfield single and junior designated hitter Michael Diaz getting hit by a pitch

With two outs and a 1-2 count, Pelc fouled off two pitches before belting a double over center fielder Brendan Summerhill to score all three Lopes for a 5-3 edge.

“It was just a high-pressure spot,” said Pelc, a .333 hitter. “It was a spot where we needed someone to show up, and I happened to be the guy to do it. I just tried to battle, put my swing on the ball, stay in the box as long as I could and win the at bat.”

Richardson, a hard-throwing left-hander, gave GCU six innings with a career-high 110 pitches. He opened the game with a steady flow of mid-90s fastballs and strong command until taking a line drive off his knee. He walked the next two batters, bringing one run home before Arizona took a 3-2 lead on a near diving catch by Pelc and an infield single.

Richardson faced the minimum over the next three innings, using two of GCU’s three double plays on the night to keep the Wildcats’ lead to 3-2 before the Lopes’ three-run sixth. Arizona cut the lead to 5-4 in the sixth, but Richardson finished inning by throwing 92 mph on his 110th pitch to induce a ground out that left two Wildcats on base.

“I was pretty fired up to start the game,” said Richardson, a Horizon High School graduate going against Candiotti from neighboring Chaparral High School in Scottsdale. “I knew it was a sold-out crowd, and I love these moments to shine. I was happy the coaches gave me the ball for this game. It means a lot to get the first region win for the program, but we’re not done yet.”

The Lopes padded their lead to 7-4 with runs in the seventh and eighth innings, putting two men on base in each inning before Arizona registered an out.

GCU sophomore shortstop Emilio Barreras, the Casa Grande native who grew up attending games at Hi Corbett Field, welcomed Wildcats reliever Casey Hintz with a double to left field to start the seventh inning. Wilson started the game with his 17th home run of the season to extend his GCU-record hitting streak to 26 games and continued the seventh-inning rally with a single. A double play moved the lead to 6-4.

In the eighth inning, Lopes senior first baseman Eli Paton walked and Diaz singled to set up Pelc’s fourth RBI on a ground ball for a 7-4 lead. GCU’s patience at the plate and two-strike battles led to drawing seven walks against Arizona, whose pitching staff led the nation this season in fewest walks per nine innings (2.5).

“We’ve been tough at the plate to strike out and tough with two strikes,” Wallis said. “I thought we laid off some borderline pitches that we got called in our favor. Coach (Nate) Causey had a great game plan for them and they executed.”

Lyon, the right-hander who had been GCU’s Saturday starter this season, polished off the win with three shutout innings with four strikeouts. Before he closed out Arizona with a two-strikeout ninth inning, Lopes sophomore first baseman Zach Yorke cushioned the GCU advantage to 9-4 with a two-run double in the top of the ninth inning. Lyon threw 49 pitches, leaving a possibility of a return later in the regional.

“When you’re in a tournament, it’s different than the regular season,” Wallis said. “You can’t think traditionally. Yes, Isaac’s our Saturday starter, but we also felt like Isaac’s one of our top two pitchers right now. We talked before the game and said if we get to the seventh inning and it’s tied or we have the lead, we’re going to go to Isaac. There was a lot of back and forth in the dugout, ‘We’re doing ti right? We’re doing it right?’ We just both said this was our best chance. If we’re going to take down the No. 1 seed who is hosting a regional in front of a sold-out crowd, let’s do it with who we feel our best guy is.”

The Lopes are the first WAC team to an NCAA tournament opener since 2010, when Hawaii beat San Diego 4-3.

Arizona is 4-4 in its past eight games, all of which were played in Tucson or Scottsdale. In the 100th meeting, GCU won its third consecutive game against Arizona for the first time in the series’ 57-year history.

“It’s going to be a close game whether it’s Grand Canyon or Salpointe High School at this point,” Arizona head coach Chip Hale said. “We are going to play a close game. That’s just how we played all year. Usually, we’ll make those plays to keep it close and give us a chance in the ninth. Tonight, we couldn’t do it. Hopefully, we get another shot at them in a couple days. They played great. That’s just the way it’s been all year against them.”

GCU freshman Hunter Watkins will start Saturday’s 7 p.m. game on ESPN+ after positing a 1.77 ERA since April 20. The 6-foot-8 right-hander is 2-1 with a 3.40 ERA on the season and will face off with West Virginia junior left-hander Tyler Switalski, who shut out TCU for five innings in his last outing to lower his season ERA to 5.94 with a 6-4 record. Arizona will play Dallas Baptist in a 1 p.m. elimination game.

Press Release courtesy of Grand Canyon Athletics – Paul Coro


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