Rogers: Arizona’s Run Sets Strong FoundationColumns
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OMAHA — Years from now, Jay Johnson won’t remember the heart-wrenching press conference following Arizona’s CWS Finals Game Three loss to Coastal Carolina. Sure, this is going to hurt for a while, but Johnson will remember this team for much more than what occurred on the final day of the college baseball season.
Instead, he will remember how this run all started – in a hotel conference room, hostile atmosphere and in a postgame press conference in Lafayette, La.
Looking back at the Wildcats entering that first postseason weekend, it was very plausible to see them advancing to the super regional round. We had the Wildcats as a projected NCAA regional host going into the tournament. However, none of us actually saw the Division I Selection Committee not giving the West Coast at least one host site, so we were a little stunned to see Lubbock, Texas, as the closest host site to the West.
Thus, Arizona and other Western teams were forced to hit the road.
Arizona just happened to get sent to one of the toughest venues in college baseball. In Lafayette, the fans will feed you before and after the game, but during? Oh boy, you’re the enemy and they make it abundantly clear as soon as opposing teams take the field.
The Wildcats won the Lafayette Regional opener against Sam Houston State that weekend, setting up a showdown with host Louisiana-Lafayette in the second game, which was actually played Sunday because of inclement weather. Arizona dropped a tough 10-3 contest against the Cajuns, but battled back the rest of the weekend in grand fashion with a win over SHSU to stay alive in the tourney and back-to-back wins over the Cajuns to advance to the super regional round.
Each step of the way, the Wildcats soaked it all up. For every win this season, UA took a team picture to remind players and coaches alike that every game mattered and to never forget the ride — Johnson’s first ride, that is. And likewise, advancing to each round of the postseason meant the world to Johnson and his coaching staff.
“The word champion means a lot to me,” coach Jay Johnson said after the Lafayette Regional title game win over Louisiana-Lafayette. “And this team can call themselves regional champions. That is very special.”
In each press conference that weekend, you got the sense that Johnson was soaking it all in, with a little hint of a chip on the shoulder. After his opening win over Sam Houston State, I asked Johnson if he thought the program was essentially carrying the flag for the West Coast. He paused, went into a big, confident, smile, and attempted to deviate that discussion away from the controversial topic.
Still, it was pretty easy to see. Not only did the Wildcats think they were carrying the torch for the West so to speak, they also were embracing the supposed underdog role. After all, why not? Despite putting together a strong regular season campaign and being a very legitimate potential host, this was still a team that began the season picked to finish near the Pac 12 Conference, by us, the coaches and everyone else.
That attitude and approach molded Arizona into a team that was incredibly difficult to beat throughout the postseason. After disposing of the Cajuns in the regional round, the Wildcats went on the road to Dudy Noble Field, where 14,000 fans greeted them with one of the best teams in the country at the time in Mississippi State. Arizona beat the Bulldogs in the series opener with righthander Bobby Dalbec, as he did so much this postseason, mowing down one of the nation’s better offensive lineups in arguably one of the two or three-best postseason pitching performances. Then, the Wildcats showed an incredible tenacity in Game Two of the series, outlasting the Bulldogs 6-5 to advance to the College World Series for the first time since they were crowned the national champions back in 2012.
Somehow, a team that struggled so mightily to find an identity back in 2015 with a 12-18 Pac 12 record molded into an Omaha team under a first-year staff, while also getting a hit away from winning yet another national title.
“I mean, to put it into perspective, this has been the best five weeks of my life. And I don’t want to say goodbye to these guys, because I mean it is — what you saw was really great baseball the entire year,” Johnson said after Thursday’s loss. “We won more games than any team at the University of Arizona in the last 30 years. You have to go back to the 1986 national championship team to find a team that won more games.
“And it’s very gratifying based on where we started, and I’m so proud of them and I’m very — I couldn’t be more pleased at the foundation that was set. And you guys think I’m talking about winning and the Omaha run, but I am talking character, work ethic, improvement on a daily basis, heart, courage, competitiveness. It just goes on and on, and I’m really proud of these guys.”
When Johnson looks back, he’ll remember:
• Louis Boyd’s defense throughout the College World Series. The sure-handed shortstop showed elite instincts and an outstanding glove throughout the run in Omaha that had observers and media members going “wow” in unison.
• Bobby Dalbec’s big-time pitching performances. Dalbec was beastly in the win over Mississippi State, and he continued those performances in Omaha, making some wonder if the Red Sox should make him a pitcher, and not a position player, where it’s believed his raw power can play up at the next level. Dalbec showed a strong three-pitch mix with a q quick arm and fastball up to 92-93 mph.
“He was Jake Arrieta for us in the postseason,” Johnson said. “If the Boston Red Sox don’t want to pay him what he’s worth, I’m happy to have him back. And I’m sure someone in the organization was watching the College World Series, and his first-round talent that might have went in the fourth round.”
• Cody Ramer’s postseason. Ramer put together a campaign this season that had him in the elite discussion, and he finished his year off with a strong showing in Omaha. Some will point to Ramer’s two errors in the series finale against Coastal Carolina as his defining moment, but that is completely unfair. Ramer finished second in the CWS in hitting with a .313 batting average, 10 total hits and two RBIs. He was also very good defensively much of the way.
“I mean, if I ever have a seen and he’s half of what he [Cody] is as a person, a player and a competitor, I’d be extremely proud. I wish I could coach him every year of my life,” Johnson said. “Somebody told me a story like he was almost redshirted a year or something like that and made it worse. I love him with everything I have. He was the best player in the Pac 12 this year and nobody meant more to their team. There’s a sneak big league in there, and I can’t wait to watch him.”
• Zach Gibbons and Ryan Aguilar’s clutch attributes: Both players had huge moments throughout the postseason and the two were very productive in Omaha, too, hitting .419 and .300, respectively, with Gibbons finishing the tournament with 13 hits, three doubles and a whopping nine RBIs. Gibbons and Aguilar are both seniors and will be greatly missed, though their performances in the 2016 postseason never forgotten.
• JC Cloney. With the Wildcats in a precarious situation from a pitching standpoint entering the CWS Finals, the talented lefthander rose to the occasion in a 3-0 win over Coastal. He struck out six, walked three and allowed just four hits in a complete game performance. Cloney had a good chance to earn MVP honors if Arizona wins the series finale against the Chanticleers. Cloney didn’t allow a run in 16 CWS innings pitched.
• While Cesar Salazar was an absolute rock behind the plate for this team throughout the season, how about veteran righthander Nathan Bannister? Bannister carried this team through the regional round. Though Johnson was criticized for the workload Bannister had in Lafayette, the righthander’s pure grit and determination was impressive to watch. He also threw well in Omaha before succumbing to a forearm injury.
Johnson and his Arizona staff won’t soon get over the heartache of the past 24 hours, but memories were made the past two weeks that will last a lifetime.
The Wildcats’ future is very bright and this team set the foundation for the Johnson era in spectacular fashion.