Chip On Their Shoulder? Arizona and the West Want to Prove Something
Out west, they aren't real happy.
Now, they're not going to speak publicly much about it, but that part of the country isn't happy about the concentration of regional hosts in the Southeastern part of the country.
It's the first time no NCAA Regional is west of Lubbock, TX. Both the Pac-12 and the Big West, the two premier conferences, didn't have a team that was willing or able to seize control of their respective conferences. And, with no conference tournament in either league, no one could storm through the league at the end.
The West has long maintained the RPI is a built in liability because of geography. It's not like Arizona, for example, can't play a rugged non-conference weekend schedule (and they did early in the season), but during the week, it's the CSUB's and UVU's of the world. And, if you don't know those schools, then the point is made. And, with openings late in the season, 'Zona scheduled Abilene Christian and Hawai'i. Other schools out west have the same issue.
Arizona thought they had a chance to host. They had the best RPI of any team out west (#21). But instead, the Wildcats, along with the rest of the west, are coming east.
Jay Johnson joined the Wildcats this year after a couple of successful seasons at Nevada. After winning the College World Series in 2012, the Wildcats had not been back to postseason, which led to a coaching change. Johnson's team has won 38 games, the most by a first year coach in Wildcats' history.
He did it by transforming a couple of pitchers and, of course, through recruiting. But the transformation of RHP Nathan Bannister has been the key.
Bannister was 7-5, 3.98 in Andy Lopez' final year. In 2016 he became a second team Louisville Slugger All-American, going 9-2 and lowering his ERA to 2.72. He's a strike thrower (22 in 112.2 innings) with just 82 hits allowed. The opposition hit a paltry .201 against him.
LHP JUCO Transfer J. C. Cloney has been stellar. The 6-1, 226 lb junior is a pitch-to-contact guy who compiled a 6-3 record in 15 starts with a 2.38 ERA. Johnson has used different arms in the third starter role. Two way specialist Bobby Dalbec (.253-5-36; 8-4, 3.08, 7 saves) is their late inning guy. Johnson isn't afraid to use them multiple innings.
Zach Gibbons (.385-0-39) and Cody Ramer (.356-1-39) make them go offensively. Keeping them off base is the key for the opposition. And, they get on base a lot. The two combined for 167 hits, 74 walks and just 57 strikeouts to go along with 17 stolen bases. When they get on, Ryan Aguilar (.314-6-42) is capable of getting them in. Arizona will play small ball (68 sac bunts) and they'll run. A lot. Wildcats are 73-99 in steal attempts.
This is a good club, one that's very capable of winning this regional. While the third starter is a question mark, their first two arms are really good. They hit and they manufacture runs. They are one of the schools carrying the banner for the West. Expect them to come in with something to prove.