All was going swimmingly for Arizona in the third inning of its win against Oklahoma State on Friday.
Starter Nathan Bannister was rolling. The senior right hander was perfect through 2.2 innings as the Wildcats held a 3-0 lead against a struggling Oklahoma State offense. The Cowboys had mustered only two total runs in Omaha going into Friday. Bannister looked to have picked up right where he left off after his 11-strikeout win over Miami in his team's College World Series opener.
Then, he walked Oklahoma State catcher Collin Theroux to end his premature perfect game bid. But what came next was far more troublesome for the Wildcats’ College World Series hopes.
Hugs all around for Nathan Bannister, who exits with unknown injury after 2.2 innings of hitless ball.— Michael Lev (@MichaelJLev) June 24, 2016
Bannister was forced to exit the game with a right arm injury; his status moving forward is unclear. It’s not tough to see why he may have cracked.
That was Nathan Bannister’s fifth start of the postseason. And with that, he’s now at 449 pitches for the tourney. Talk about a workhorse.— Kendall Rogers (@KendallRogersD1) June 24, 2016
Nathan Bannister's postseason:— Michael Lananna (@mlananna) June 24, 2016
June 3: 7 IP, 96 P
June 6: 7 IP, 102 P
June 11: 6 IP, 86 P
June 18: 7 IP, 118 P
Left after 2.2 IP, 47 P today
Thankfully, Arizona held a 3-0 lead in the third inning. Things could have been worse, even if Jay Johnson had to make an earlier call to the pen than he would have liked. But it wasn’t an ideal situation. Luckily for Arizona, it has a luxury out of the pen that not many teams can boast.
That would be Cameron Ming.
And Cameron Ming’s ‘rally ‘stache,’ too.
Ming just might have saved Arizona’s season on Friday. The athletic lefty pitched five innings of one-run ball in relief, retiring the first 12 batters he saw. The Wildcats pulled away late by scoring five runs in the final two innings, but it was a two-run game when Ming entered. He did his work while it mattered.
“Bannister is the captain of the pitching staff, I would say. He grinds it out every time he goes out there and shows us how much he wants to win,” Ming said after the game. And it means a lot to every one of the pitchers. I look up to him a lot."
Hovering in the upper 80’s with impeccable command and a wipeout slider, facing Ming is a chore for opposing hitters. Turns out, he’s been doing this for the entirety of the College World Series. If Bannister has been the LeBron James of Arizona’s pitching staff, Ming has been Kyrie Irving.
Here’s what Ming has done in comparison to the rest of Arizona’s bullpen in Omaha. He’s been the team’s closer in every sense of the word, except for his title:
|Other Arizona Relievers||1.1||2||2||1|
"They trust him, obviously, at a high level,” Oklahoma State coach Josh Holliday said. “That's why they put the ball in his hand with a lead. Probably a combination of confidence and skill and know-how. And he mixes it together and he's a nice pitcher.”
Generally in baseball, when a starting pitcher goes down, it’s up to the bullpen to pick up the slack as a unit. It’s rare to see guys stretched out beyond one or two innings, and it's even rarer to see a one-man relief show.
Despite winning today, the Wildcats have their work cut out for them tomorrow. The rubber match against Oklahoma State is do-or-die, but after firing 79 pitches on Friday, it’s hard to envision Ming throwing on Saturday. It could be up to the rest of the pitching staff to pick up the slack.
Today, they witnessed first-hand how it’s possible. Asked how he'd deal with his worn down stable of arms, Johnson was understandably vague.
"Do what I always do,” the skipper said. “Eat, sleep, live Arizona baseball, and we're going to find a way.”
Ming extinguished one potential fire today. Arizona has one more to put out tomorrow.