The Arizona Wildcats are College World Series finals bound after a 5-1 win over Oklahoma State on Saturday afternoon.Jay Johnson’s squad is absolutely rolling at the perfect time. The Wildcats have scored 14 runs in their past two games against an Oklahoma State pitching staff that had allowed zero tallies in its first two Omaha outings. Arizona has proved it thrives against the best.
None of this is new for the Arizona program. The Wildcats won the College World Series in 2012, and to take home hardware twice in five years would be mightily impressive.
But much has changed in Tucson since 2012, with the exception of winning. Andy Lopez was the Wildcats’ head coach in 2012; Johnson is in his first year at the helm in 2016. And as is life in college sports, the roster is entirely different. If you listened to these guys speak without knowing which sport they played, one might walk away confused.
“We play every game as a Super Bowl," shortstop Louis Boyd said. "We stay together as a team, and everyone just believes in one another.”
So how does 2016 Arizona compare to 2012 Arizona? Let’s compare and contrast them in some key categories.
2012: 7.47 runs per game, 23 home runs, .385 OBP, .447 SLG
2016: 5.91 runs per game, 26 home runs, .368 OBP, .403 SLG
Even in its 2012 apex, Arizona has never been a program that’s been overly reliant on the long ball. But they still find ways to score runs.
These days, the Wildcats are one of the most bunt-happy teams in Omaha. While some might scoff at that strategy, 2016 Arizona has one vital thing going for it: the Wildcats are constantly on base. Cody Ramer, Zach Gibbons and Ryan Aguilar are known to wear out starting pitchers in the first inning, as was the case against Oklahoma State hurler Thomas Hatch on Saturday.
Still, the 2012 Wildcats were a more potent offense by pretty much every metric. This year’s rendition also doesn’t feature a player as good as Rob Refsnyder or Johnny Field, who each posted an OPS above 1.000 four years ago. 2012 Arizona gets the edge on offense.
2012: 3.70 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings
2016: 3.29 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 6.91 strikeouts per nine innings
Arizona’s lethal pitching staff has lived up to the hype thus far in Omaha. The Cats have surrendered just six runs in five games during the 2016 College World Series, and virtually every starter Johnson runs out there is effective.
Arizona’s bullpen doesn’t feature a ton of depth; Cameron Ming has pitched the vast majority of the team’s relief innings in Omaha. Wildcat ace Nathan Bannister also gives Arizona fans cause to worry. The senior righty left Friday’s game with an elbow injury, and his status for the final series is unclear.
With that said, Bobby Dalbec and J.C. Cloney have been lights out in recent weeks, and this is still a very capable crop of arms. It’s better than the 2012 staff with or without Bannister, outperforming that group in every relevant statistic.
“I look at Bob and what he's done on the mound, it's borderline legendary here in the postseason,” Johnson said on Saturday.
Kurt Heyer went 13-2 with a 2.24 ERA for the Wildcats in 2012, but after him, Lopez was rolling the dice each time he trotted someone out there. That’s not the case for Coach Johnson. He’s going to ride the horses that brought him to Omaha.
2016 Arizona’s defense has been nearly flawless in Omaha. The Wildcats have committed just one error in the College World Series and have come up with web gems on numerous occasions, including a clutch diving play by Boyd in the ninth inning on Saturday:
2012 Arizona was outstanding defensively, too, but it’s hard to pick against a defensive infield of Aguilar, Ramer, Boyd and Dalbec. This year’s team gets a very slight edge in the field.
Yesterday, the Wildcats had their backs against the wall. Oklahoma State had them on the ropes going into Friday; the Cowboys had yet to allow a run in Omaha going into Friday. You know the rest, though. Arizona crushed the Pokes in back-to-back affairs to clinch a spot in the final series.
In 2012, Arizona ran the table in Omaha. Those Wildcats posted a plus-19 run differential in the College World Series and never had to play in an elimination game. 2016 Arizona’s momentum right now is undeniable, but by default, the 2012 Wildcats were playing better baseball going into the final series.
The two teams are opposites, but each has (or had) plenty of talent to boast. The 2016 edition cannot wait for Monday.