There was a comfort level there, compliments of Kevin Viers and Manny Argomaniz, who had the key hits in a three-run first inning for Fresno State.
But for redshirt freshman Anthony Arias, there was more to it than run support while he pitched the Bulldogs to an 11-2 victory over New Mexico on Saturday at Beiden Field, which locked up the No. 3 seed at the Mountain West Conference Tournament.
Fresno State (29-26, 18-12) will open Wednesday against the winner of the play-in game between sixth-seeded UNLV and No. 7 San Jose State.
The last time Arias made a home start, April 25 against San Diego State, he did not make it out of the opening inning. He faced four batters, and three reached and scored.
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But since then he has settled in nicely, which is one of 31 reasons that coach Mike Batesole is bullish on the Bulldogs’ chances this week in Reno and a potential return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. There’s a lot going on, with Arias not alone in surging through this last month of the regular season.
“They’ve been playing well now,” Batesole said. “That’s seven out of eight and we got a couple of road weekends that we got done and getting this one done at home when it mattered, that’s all good stuff for your club going into the tournament. That’s big.”
Against the Lobos, Arias allowed five hits and one run in six innings. He struck out a career-high eight and the Lobos were 0 of 4 against him with a runner in scoring position — two strikeouts, a double-play grounder and a run-scoring groundout.
“I just kept telling myself, ‘One pitch at a time, stay focused, stay downhill, throw strikes consistently,’ and I was just pitching with my team behind me,” he said.
“It was Senior Day, so it was an emotional day for everyone and I was just pitching for my teammates. … I was just living off my team energy and trying to give us the best opportunity to take this three seed.”
The only time Arias strayed from the script junior catcher Taylor Ward went out to the mound for a brief chat. He had walked Aaron Siple on five pitches to lead off the fourth and started 1-0 against Cory Voss. What did Ward say?
“I believe in being effectively wild,” Ward said. “You see Garrett Mundell, how hitters are swinging at pitches above the letters and down in the zone. He and Ricky Thomas have the ability to do that. They throw hard enough. That’s pretty much what I was telling him. Throw hard. It’s all good. Just throw it around the zone. You have the stuff right now. You look good. That was pretty much the message and he took it to heart.”
Arias threw 17 more pitches to get out of the inning and 13 were strikes, and he started the next three batters and 6 of 8 with a strike.
That was all part of the plan against the Lobos (29-25, 17-13), who had six .300 hitters in the starting lineup and are second in the conference to champion Nevada in runs scored.
“They are such a disciplined, outstanding offense,” Batesole said. “They have more .300 hitters on the bench than we have in our starting lineup. They can hit. If you get strike one on them and get them backpedaling, that’s the only way you’re going to beat them.”
Arias did with considerable help from an offense that put up all its runs when he was in the game. And in five appearances since that loss to San Diego State, in which his ERA ballooned to 5.62, Arias has allowed opposing batters to hit just .190. In 18 innings, he has allowed 12 hits while striking out 17 and has an ERA of 3.00.
Whatever was missing in that bad start has been pieced back together. “He’s a competitor and that was sour to him. He didn’t like that and today he came out and did his job and did a great job,” Ward said.
“That game was tough for me and it was hard to take that down, but I just went out there with the same thought process and just told myself to throw strikes and it kind of all fell into place,” Arias said. “Me and (pitching coach Steve Rousey) talked about staying tall, staying downhill, attacking the mitt and just get your strikes, get your zero.”
MOUNTAIN WEST TOURNAMENT
▪ Wednesday’s opening schedule: No. 6 UNLV vs. No. 7 San Jose State, 11 a.m.; No. 3 Fresno State vs. UNLV/San Jose State winner, 3 p.m.; No. 4 New Mexico vs. No. 5 Air Force, 7 p.m., all at William Peccole Park in Reno, Nevada
▪ Webcast: All games streamed at themw.com
▪ Of note: Regular-season champ Nevada and runner-up San Diego State have byes as the top two seeds. The championship is 7 p.m. Saturday, with an if-necessary game in the double-elimination format on Sunday.