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Storming back: Arizona’s Trent Gilbert delivers walk-off hit in 10th inning

Bases loaded. Bottom of the 10th inning. NCAA Super Regional. The most important home game the Arizona Wildcats have played in at least two decades.

This is your life, Trent Gilbert.

“Hell, yeah, I want to bat in that situation,” he said.

Arizona’s freshman second baseman got what he wanted and wanted what he got — a sharp two-strike RBI single for a thrilling 7-6 victory over St. John’s in the first game of an NCAA Super Regional at Hi Corbett Field on Friday.

“About five weeks ago, he would have had big eyes in that situation,” coach Andy Lopez said.

“Today, he didn’t have big eyes at all. He just looked different. Confident.”

Gilbert, the No. 9 hitter in the order, knew the plan. The team practices these bases-loaded hitting situations every day in practice. Look for a pitch up; get the ball in the air. Striking out is OK with one out; give the next day a chance. Don’t hit the ball on the ground for a potential double play.

“In practice, if they go and hit the ball on the ground, it’s not a love fest at that point,” Lopez said.

“They hear it from me pretty bad. Some may say they take some abuse. I don’t say it’s abuse. I’m just trying to get some of the foolishness out of them and help them grow up. He’s grown up.”

Trent Gilbert

Trent Gilbert reached base three times on Friday, delivering two big hits, including the game-winner. J&L Photo

Gilbert, a left-handed batter, executed the plan perfectly, stroking a 1-2 pitch on a line into right-center field for the walk-off hit.

“It might not have been the kind of season I wanted,” he said, “but it’s the postseason now.”

And, now, Arizona is one win away from its first College World Series berth since 2004.

Game 2 of the Super Regional will start at noon on Saturday. Game 3, if necessary, will be Sunday at 1 p.m.

Gilbert, who entered the game hitting .278, lowest among the UA starters, also delivered the key hit as the Wildcats rallied after falling behind 5-0 in the top of the fourth.

Arizona nibbled back by scoring single runs in the bottom of the fourth and fifth — the Arizona runners scoring after reaching base on a walk — before tying the game in the sixth off starter Kyle Hansen.

Gilbert had a two-out triple to start the scoring in the inning. He scored on a single by Joey Rickard, who would come around to score when Red Storm centerfielder Kyle Richardson dropped a shallow fly as he came in to try to make the catch.

Said Lopez: “I thought the triple was probably the biggest at-bat of the day for us.”

Said St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer: “Let’s be honest, guys, that ball has to be caught.”

From there, the game remained tied at 5 until the top of the 10th. Arizona ace Kurt Heyer, who gave up a staggering 17 hits — five above his previous season high — had kept St. John’s scoreless five consecutive innings until it scratched across a run with a bad-bounce single, a passed ball and a opposite field cue shot just inside the left-field line.

That was it for Heyer after 129 pitches and 9 1/3 innings. Mathew Troupe gave up a single to left on his first pitch, but left fielder Johnny Field fired a strike to home to nail Sean O’Hare, who had driven in the go-ahead run. A huge out.

Blankmeyer lamented “trying to squeeze” out another run in that situation, and he also rued the fact his team gave away too much — the error in centerfield and the walks that led to runs.

Like the walk to Refsnyder to lead off the 10th.

Of course, credit Arizona, too. The Cats have a deep lineup that grinds down pitchers. There are no easy outs. As Blankmeyer said, “It’s a club that doesn’t swing and miss a lot. You have to pitch to them.”

Seth Mejias-Brean sacrificed Refsnyder to second with a bunt, a strategic move that paid off when Bobby Brown followed with an RBI single to tie the game. A single by Brandon Dixon and a semi-intentional walk to Riley Moore loaded the bases for Gilbert.

He was ready. The freshman from Torrance (Calif.) High had grown up through an up-and-down season.

“You go from the survival stage, to the improvement stage, to the win stage,” Lopez said of his freshman class.

“I think there was a time when he was probably in the survival stage, then he started improving, and now he’s kind of in the win stage. It’s a maturation process, but it’s nice to see it come to fruition.”

No better time than in the bottom of the 10th.

‘Courageous’ Heyer survives St. John’s in a memorable performance

Game highlights from the NCAA.

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