Arizona Wildcats stay alive but Nathan Bannister leaves with injury

March 4, 2017

On Friday afternoon, the baseball team savored its Game 11 victory over Oklahoma State, a 9-3 win that both fended off elimination and moved the Wildcats one step closer to a College World Series finals berth. Their celebration contained traces of the same quirky, water-bottle spraying, towel-twirling, mustache-growing, rally cap-sporting gusto they’ve used throughout the entire 2016 postseason. Those antics have made the team a darling of ESPN cameras and have even inspired some copycat efforts from Omaha locals in the grandstands.

While Friday evening’s happiness was evident, it wasn’t quite as unhinged as the images of which CWS fans have become accustomed. After their win, the Wildcats spilled into the TD Ameritrade Park tunnel looking tired. Their tones were unusually muted. Their swaths of eye-black were runny. They even looked a little worried … but only a little.

“That’s four games in six days,” rookie CWS head coach Jay Johnson exclaimed to his team as they prepared to load the bus back to their hotel. “Let’s hope we have to play at least three more over the next four days.”

’s 142.3 innings pitched are the most by a Division I starter this season. Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY Sports

Yes, they won. Yes, they will play OSU in a Saturday rematch (3 p.m. ET on ESPN2), the winner advancing to Monday night’s best-of-three CWS championship series. However, as the Series grinds through the one-week mark, the Wildcats might have to press ahead without the services of their ace, Nathan Bannister, he of the 12-2 record and All-Pac-12 honors.

The senior righty started Friday’s contest and appeared to be cruising toward another signature deep-inning performance, having surrendered no hits and striking out five of the nine batters he faced before leaving the game with tightness in his pitching arm.

Bannister’s early exit forced Johnson to do something Arizona never does in Omaha, certainly not since the series left Rosenblatt Stadium after 2010. He went to his bullpen early. Before Friday, the team’s starters had lasted at least seven innings in eight games at TD Ameritrade. After Kevin Ginkel went one and a third, Arizona’s regular closer Cameron Ming pitched an uncharacteristic five innings and surrendered only one run while having to fight his way out of multiple jams .

But he threw 79 pitches.

And … Bannister’s 2.2 innings pitched brought his season total to 142.3, the most of any Division I starter this season. In April, he threw three complete games over four starts. In Arizona’s dramatic regional win over Louisiana-Lafayette, he pitched on two days’ rest.

And … Johnson admitted that Friday’s unexpected scramble has created a monster of a jigsaw puzzle going forward, no matter how many days forward that ends up becoming. This is one those puzzles that is so complicated that you leave it out on the dining room table where the entire family can stop by and put together a few pieces at a time, for like a month.

Johnson and his staff have less than 24 hours.

“We’ll go back at it and develop a plan,” the coach explained after the game, knowing he’ll be leaning on pitching coach Dave Lawn, who has navigated two previous College World Series rotations and mentored USC’s All-World (but injury prone) ace Mark Prior. “With the way we’re playing defense and building some offensive momentum, I think we can figure out how to piece it together.”

The hope for Arizona on Friday afternoon had been to get exactly what Coastal Carolina squeezed from its ace later that evening. The Chanticleers’ No. 1 starter, Andrew Beckwith, pitched a masterful complete game to reach his school-record 14th win. The junior righty not only secured his team a Saturday night do-or-die rematch with TCU (8 p.m. ET on ESPN), he also gifted his visibly weary pitching teammates with a night off. Now his coach, Gary Gilmore, can be more aggressive with a staff that should, in theory, be ready to hit the reset button, especially crucial after using three pitchers on Thursday night.

Andrew Beckwith threw a complete game in Coastal Carolina’s 4-1 win over TCU on Friday. Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY Sports

“If the camera was on me, you probably saw me get whiplash looking up to watch his pitch count,” Gilmore said Friday night, sitting alongside Beckwith, who threw 137 pitches in all. “On Saturday, we might have to use two or three guys we haven’t used yet in this College World Series. But I’ve got a lot of guys who got a little bit of rest now, so we won’t be going home without throwing everything we’ve got. We’ll be locked and loaded.”

Beckwith’s performance also spared Gilmore the burden of having to handle questions about whether he put the spurs to his ace too long. Because Bannister left injured, Johnson will no doubt face criticism when it comes to questions about the overuse of his best arms. But he will be merely the latest to stand in a firing line that has become a bit of College World Series tradition.

Critics will ask about the toll placed on young arms, especially arms that are headed for professional baseball. Earlier this month, Bannister was drafted by Seattle Mariners.

His defenders will answer, ‘Hey, what’s a coach supposed to do? Win, right? His team is playing in its 68th game of the season because it has been a really great season. A national championship is literally within reach. And oh by the way, the kids on the mound are the first ones to want to keep fighting through arm fatigue to make that championship happen, just as Bannister attempted to do even after feeling the first tinge of discomfort.’ (Gilmore lost an eighth-inning argument with Beckwith over whether to pull his ace: “I was going to have to hit him with a brick to get him out the game.”)

Johnson’s initial reaction when catcher Cesar Salazar ran out to check on “Banny” was to holds his arms out as if to say, “WTH?” But he soon was out on the field for a long discussion, a pair of warm-up tosses and ultimately the hook.

Sensing the drooped shoulders of his squad, the coach rallied the team in the dugout and pointed to the departed pitcher as inspiration. That team reacted by exploding into a jumping, screaming dugout dance.

Editor’s Picks2016 NCAA baseball championship results

The staved off elimination six times in the NCAA tournament to win the first national championship in school history.

“Coach said, ‘No one wants to win more than Bannister,'” recalled rightfielder Zach Gibbons, who responded with a 3-for-5, two-RBI effort. “‘He went out and competed to the full extent that he could give … so we should do that. We should go out there and do it for him.'”

Just what exactly that full extent might be, we won’t know for a while. On Friday evening, Johnson said he was optimistic that after the pitcher was checked out, it “would prove to be nothing.” Who knows? Should Arizona make the best-of-three CWS finals series and the diagnosis turn out to be minimal, the team’s No. 1 pitcher might have one more night of Arizona glory left in the tank.

“If Banny comes back, look out,” Salazar said. “But even if he doesn’t, he’s shown us how to compete.”


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