Arizona baseball: College World Series run led by seniors
To college baseball players, their junior year is like being a diamond at the Tucson Gem Show: It's their time to shine.
Because of Major League Baseball's draft rules -- if a player doesn't sign out of high school, he must wait until after his third year of college to do so -- everything leads up to that all-important junior season, and when it doesn't go well, it can feel like a lifetime's worth of disappointment.
Some return for their senior year a shell of their former selves, confidence shattered.
And some blossom.
And some, well, they lead their teams to the College World Series.
"Those guys can do no wrong in my eyes, and I'll be forever grateful," said Arizona coach Jay Johnson, whose team will face Miami at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday in Omaha, Nebraska. "And look, we're going to the College World Series -- this wasn't just some cool season; I mean, they did it.
"For me, Nathan Bannister is the national pitcher of year; I wish I could coach Cody Ramer every year of my life; Ryan Aguilar hit .180 last year or something and Zach Gibbons has turned into a real player, and now they all get to play professional baseball, and they earned it."
Now, Bannister and his sizzling 11-2 record and 2.63 ERA certainly deserve Johnson's kudos, but he at least showed a glimpse of what was to come this season, leading the team with seven wins last year with a 3.98 ERA.
But the Wildcat trio of Ramer, Aguilar and Gibbons are, in a word, surprises. In a few more words, they've justified every last ounce of Johnson's decision to put his energy into them.
See, a first-year coach like Johnson, playing for a well-reasoned athletic director like Greg Byrne, has a leash about the size of the Rio Grande. He has a choice to make: Rebuild, punt the season, go with a youth movement and relegate the forgotten seniors to mop-up duty, or double-down on experience and savvy and commit his time into letting the guys see it through.
Driving on his way to play summer ball, Gibbons got a call from Johnson that convinced him of the commitment.
Ramer wasn't so sure -- he'd considered transferring after learning Andy Lopez was retiring and didn't hear from Johnson until a couple weeks into the new coach's tenure. But he soon bought in, as well.
"The first meeting we had with coach Johnson, he said, 'People are saying I'm going to wait for my guys, this isn't my recruiting class, you guys aren't my team. But when I took this job, I saw on paper that you guys can perform better than you have,'" Ramer said.
"He flat-out told us this year was his team and he'd do everything he could to get us to postseason. That allowed us to play a lot more freely."
All three, after all, struggled mightily as juniors.
Aguilar admits it: "Last year, I definitely felt like I was pressing."
Ramer said he wasn't aggressive the last three years; the pressure to perform felt like a mountain.
Gibbons retooled his stance before this year. All three came and went in last year's draft with nary a call.
What did help?
First of all, the instant vote of confidence from Johnson went a long way.
"If any player senses you don't have a genuine care or interest in them as a person, you're sunk," Johnson said. "I had seven guys on the team who deserved a new opportunity, and a chance, and to their credit they've taken it and run with it."
The second thing, Gibbons said, came during fall ball, when Arizona's batting instructors had the hitters focus on vision, drawing dots on the ball and making them call out the color as the ball approached.
Visine couldn't have helped these guys see any better.
Gibbons leads the squad in hitting at .381 and on-base percentage at .465 after his average dipped to .287 as a junior.
Ramer, who batted .178 as a junior in 45 at-bats after starting 48 games the previous two years, came alive as a senior, improving to a .352 clip while pacing the team in six offensive categories.
Aguilar has swatted a team-high eight home runs, leads the team with 51 RBIs and is batting .311.
All three players were drafted this past weekend. Gibbons (17th round) and Ramer (19th) were picked by the Angels; Aguilar (31st) went to the Brewers.
It wasn't just the ball that needed to come into focus, though.
"I definitely think my mentality toward the game changed," Gibbons said. "Last year, putting all that pressure on myself -- it's easy to get down in the dumps."
Ramer and Aguilar know.
"I really went into summer ball and started from scratch," Aguilar said. "I looked back to the previous years I had success, and I went back to that mindset, kind of like having no fear out there."
Added Ramer: "I definitely felt a sense of urgency in the fall. The past three years, I just tried to do so well, but I felt more relaxed this fall, and that's what I attribute to the success. I didn't change my mindset or anything, I just didn't put pressure on myself when the season came."
Nor as it has worn on.
In the team's Super Regional-sealing win over Mississippi State, the trio combined for seven hits, including four by Gibbons and two by Aguilar, who lifted the team with a three-run homer.
"You can't even quantify it," Johnson said. "They are the reason we're going to Omaha."