If you’re a University of Arizona baseball fan and had to pick a “most important game” of the season, today’s match-up with UC Santa Barbara would definitely be at or near the top of the list.
The Wildcats have to win this one to keep from being eliminated from the College World Series. Lose it and their ‘Cinderella’ season will be officially over.
(*Update: Arizona scores three runs in the third inning and then holds on for the 3-0 win. JC Cloney started on the mound and went seven innings before turning it over to Cameron Ming to put the lid on the win. Jared Oliva’s two-run homer fueled the offense. They play Oklahoma State on Friday.)
This team of over-achievers wasn’t expected to be in the mix with seven other teams vying for a national title. Heck, they won just a dozen conference games last season and had been picked in a pre-season Pac-12 coaches’ poll to finish ninth in the conference this season.
And they have a new coach this year in Jay Johnson, who has been trying to assemble a winning program while working with a group of players he really didn’t know that well. Just getting them into the post-season, something that hasn’t happened in the last four years, would have been enough to re-energize the fan base.
But here they are in Omaha, where they won their opener against Miami before losing by one run to Oklahoma State on Monday in the double-elimination event.
Arizona is a proud program. The Cats have been to the CWS 17 times now and own four national titles. But the last title, under Andy Lopez in 2012, is the only national championship they’ve won in the last 30 years. So, while no one could have expected what they have achieved this year, being so close to another title now has their fans dreaming of a fifth.
The Saturday opener against No. 3 national seed Miami went almost too smoothly as the Wildcats put up three runs in the first inning and then rode the arm of Nathan Bannister to a 5-1 victory. The senior righty from Liberty High School in Peoria matched his career-best 11 strikeouts while working the first seven innings. Seven of those strikeouts were on called strikes. Cameron Ming took the mound in the eighth and pitched two scoreless innings.
The pitching duo combined with a stingy defense to hold the Hurricanes (50-13) to a single run for only the third time this season.
In the second game, a 1-0 loss to Oklahoma State, it was Bobby Dalbec who got the starting nod and the job of winning Arizona’s seventh straight game. He pitched a gem for eight full innings, striking out 12 and giving up one walk and scattering five hits.
But it was the fourth inning that got away from the junior right-hander from Colorado. Donnie Walton’s double opened the inning, and Garrett Benge singled to score Walton. That was all the Cowboys needed to notch the win.
That loss to OSU was the first time all season that the Cats have dropped a game when holding their opponents to two or fewer runs. They were 23-0 in those games before Monday’s contest.
The Wildcats (45-22) may get another shot at OSU, depending on how this afternoon’s game with UC Santa Barbara goes. The winner will face off with the Cowboys on Friday.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)