Score schmore — for GCU, playing D-backs is a win
Story by Mark Heller
Photos by Slaven Gujic
GCU News Bureau
An hour before first pitch, the day was already a success.
As he watched his Grand Canyon University baseball teammates begin infield practice during a postcard-perfect Wednesday afternoon, junior second baseman Greg Saenz glanced around Salt River Fields and saw several Arizona Diamondbacks players emerge from their clubhouse.
Eyes grew wide an hour earlier when the Diamondbacks’ announced starting lineup featured many of its regular-season regulars: Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock and Jake Lamb, among others.
Even college players get extra excited when given the chance to play against Major League Baseball players. Saenz, outfielder Garrison Schwartz and some of their GCU teammates hoped for a handshake introduction with a few of the day’s opponents, ideally while standing on the base after getting a hit.
“It’s already an awesome experience,” Saenz said before the game. “Feel like a kid out here.”
Wednesday’s exhibition game was part of the annual Collegiate Baseball Series, in which the Diamondbacks annually rotate a spring training game against each of Arizona’s three NCAA Division I baseball teams. GCU will play the D-backs again in 2020.
GCU President Brian Mueller delivered a strike for the ceremonial first pitch of the day and gave a Lopes Up as the announced crowd of 4,004 — many of whom wore purple — offered a rousing cheer.
A few minutes later, freshman pitcher Tyler Hansen took the mound for his college baseball debut. The first five batters to begin his GCU career: an All-Star (A.J. Pollock), a .280, 16 home-run hitter in 2016 (Brandon Drury), another All-Star (Goldschmidt), a future All-Star (Jake Lamb) and a 30 home-run hitter last year (Yasmany Tomas).
“He’s from Snowflake, Arizona. He hadn’t ever seen this before,” GCU coach Andy Stankiewicz said of Hansen. “He was great. We said, ‘Don’t be fearful.’ I’m sure emotions were running a little high for him, but he did a great job.”
A couple hits and defensive miscues helped the Diamondbacks to three runs in the first inning, but Hansen and his teammates held the big league team scoreless the next two innings, by which point Hansen’s memorable collegiate debut was done.
“I got a ton of text messages,” he said afterward with a smile. “It was a thrill. I tried to stay calm but it wasn’t easy.”
By the second inning of GCU’s 9-1 loss in the seven-inning exhibition game, the local MLB team emptied its bench. GCU did the same in the middle innings as Stankiewicz wanted to get as many players as possible the memory of playing against big-league competition.
Stankiewicz, a former Diamondbacks infielder during his seven-year MLB career in the mid-1990s, felt that “jitters” played a role in his team’s sluggish start to the game. His players agreed.
Several players played in spring training ballparks during high school state tournaments or All-Star exhibition games, but those same players felt different about Wednesday’s experience — from the competition to the clubhouse and field itself.
“I didn’t know how we’d feel, but it’s the same game – just more smiles and a little more energy,” Schwartz said before the game. “We’re enjoying it. Obviously, you hope to see (the D-backs’ best players), and for them all to be in the lineup makes it even cooler.”
And even though the Diamondbacks’ regulars were out of the game early, the Lopes still received some in-game tutorials. GCU’s lone run of the game came in the sixth inning. Griffin Barnes drew a walk and Tyler Wyatt followed with a hit down the left field line. Barnes moved to third but Wyatt was thrown out at second. Barnes then scored on a groundout.
“In college that’s a stand-up double,” Wyatt said afterward with a smile. “Here the guy doesn’t even bounce his throw (to second).
“It was fun, an experience of a lifetime. We got the whole nine yards in treatment and that made it more surreal.”
Despite the early struggles, the Lopes gave a few hundred purple-clad fans reasons to cheer. Quin Cotton made a running catch at the left field wall in the first inning, Hansen and Saenz picked off a runner at second and the Lopes turned a double play against Diamondbacks catcher Jeff Mathis thanks to a nifty scoop in the dirt by first baseman Ian Evans.
It wasn’t enough on this day, but coming off a season-opening series victory against No. 22 Oklahoma State, Stankiewicz said early-season success and playing against MLB competition can be a boon for the program as it aims toward postseason success once it becomes eligible in 2018.
There weren’t as many handshake introductions as Lopes’ players had hoped, but Saenz did get a few in-game pointers from Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed between pitches.
Those will be his memories.
“We were pretty excited to play so many of them, guys a lot of us have watched and rooted for,” Saenz said. “It’s the same game, just a little better competition. The best of the best.”
Contact Mark Heller at (602) 639-7516 or firstname.lastname@example.org