Arizona starting pitcher JC Cloney just won Game 1 of the College World Series finals for the Wildcats, and he made it look easy.
Cloney was brilliant all night long. The crafty lefty tossed a four-hit complete game shutout against one of the best offenses in the America, and the Wildcats are now one win away from a College World Series victory.
For starters, he may have eased his coach’s nerves a bit.
“I don't know how many times two teams have come out of the loser's bracket to make it to the finals, and I hope Coach Gilmore is as confused as I am right now,” Jay Johnson said of how he'd handle his pitching staff before the series. It was a reference to his limited supply of arms.
Johnson was right, in a sense. But he left one thing out – his Game 1 starting pitching choice likely wasn’t difficult. Cloney had been outstanding in Omaha before Monday night’s game, as he fired seven scoreless innings in his previous start.
JC Cloney has now thrown 16 scoreless innings in the College World Series. He did it in 122 pitches today. 4 H, 3 BB, 6 K.— Michael Lananna (@mlananna) June 28, 2016
But for Games 2, and potentially, 3? Johnson was, and still is, in a pickle. With that said, Arizona would have been in loads of trouble had Cloney gone less than seven innings. He went nine.
“He didn't really dial down until like seventh, eighth, and ninth and he still was throwing pretty much the same he was throwing the first inning,” Coastal shortstop Michael Paez said after the game.
Why was this outing so crucial? Because Nathan Bannister, the team’s ace, left Friday afternoon’s start against Oklahoma State with an arm injury. His status moving forward is murky at best, though Johnson hasn’t officially ruled him out. Bobby Dalbec just pitched seven innings on Saturday; he’d be on two days of rest if he were to pitch on Tuesday, but Wednesday is not out of the question.
Arizona is thin in the bullpen, too. Johnson clearly trusts Cameron Ming and Kevin Ginkel, but beyond those two, there are question marks. Freshman Alfonso Rivas is the only other Wildcat to record an out from the bullpen thus far in Omaha, and take that in the most literal sense. He has recorded exactly one out.
By no means is this series done. Far from it. If any team is unlikely to have two bad offensive games in a row, it’s Coastal Carolina. And while Cloney’s outing certainly tilted the equation in Johnson’s favor, there is still no clear choice to start Game 2, unless Bannister is healthy.
However, this was the best-case scenario for Johnson and the Wildcats. Ginkel and Ming are completely fresh for Games 2 and 3, and had this game gone differently, Johnson’s original quote about pitching strategy would have rang all too true for the Wildcats. Where could he have turned? Instead, Arizona has options at its disposal.
But let’s take a moment to appreciate Cloney’s dominance. He stayed within himself, and that was more than enough to be effective. The lefty recorded 13 groundball outs on the evening; he pitched to his defense’s strength, and it didn’t disappoint.
"I really don't know what splits are for me,” Cloney said of his groundball tendencies. “But I think it's just throwing the changeup, keeping it down, keeping the fastball down. It's knee height, working down.”
So, who's Arizona going with tomorrow? We don't know. After the game, Johnson indicated that even he doesn't know, though take that with a grain of salt. When asked who would take the mound for Coastal Carolina on Tuesday, Chanticleers head coach Gary Gilmore suggested he'd take a page out of Arizona's book.
"They kind of didn't tell us (their starting pitcher) today until game time. So they'll get the same thing from me tomorrow,” Gimore said.
The intensity is heating up.
The bottom line: the Arizona Wildcats are one win away from their second College World Series title in five years. South Carolina last accomplished such a feat when it went back-to-back in 2010 and 2011. Pretty good company.
Cloney might only throw in one game this series. But he is proof that a pitcher can affect outcomes on days he doesn’t toe the rubber, too.