OMAHA—At about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday —a few hours before his team was to play an elimination game in the College World Series—Arizona lefty closer Cameron Ming happened to see senior teammate Zach Gibbons in the team’s Embassy Suites hotel lobby. Ming immediately noticed that Gibbons “had a nice mustache going.”
“I said, ‘Wow,’” Ming remembered. “I want to be a part of it.”
So Ming went back up to his room, took out his razor and fashioned his own ‘stache. And then Ming pulled out his phone and texted everyone on the team he could think of with malleable facial hair and told them to go with a ‘stache look, too. By the time the Wildcats lined up on the third-base side of the diamond for the national anthem around 6 p.m., the roster was littered with rally mustaches.
None of that should come as a surprise for a group of players who proudly display a Spider-Man action figure in their dugout and pretend to sip on hot coffee when they reach base. Throughout the Series, TV cameras have caught Arizona players pouring water cooler cups on their teammates’ hair and styling it—a pseudo dugout salon.
Those in-game shenanigans are all part of a mindset head coach Jay Johnson describes as “navy seals playing ping pong.” He has no issues with his players having fun and staying loose—as long as they also maintain military-like focus on the game and the task at hand.
“If they do that, I’m fine with all the extra stuff,” Johnson said. “And if they want to look like Super Mario with their mustaches, good for them.”
— Arizona Baseball (@ArizonaBaseball) June 23, 2016
The sophomore closer Ming represents that duality between looseness and focus as much as anyone on Arizona’s roster. He fits the stereotype of the goofy lefthander, the kind of guy who cracks jokes in press conferences and organizes mass mustache grooming in order to keep his teammates loose.
But Ming can also flip the switch in an instant and lock onto a situation with laser focus—as evidenced by his postseason resume. Pitching in a bevy of roles and situations throughout the season, including as a starter, Ming emerged as Arizona’s closer during the NCAA tournament, sealing the regional-clinching win at Louisiana-Lafayette with 3 1/3 scoreless innings, closing both games of Arizona’s sweep of Mississippi State in the super regional and pitching in every game of the College World Series so far.
That included Wednesday’s 3-0, season-extending win against UC Santa Barbara. Ming struck out three and stranded two baserunners to earn his third save of the postseason.
Ming said those high-pressure situations have gotten progressively easier to handle the more he’s been thrown into them. More than that, he enjoys the adrenaline. He said he doesn’t “like starting that much.” He prefers to come out of the ‘pen. And Johnson said Ming has succeeded because of his ability to compartmentalize.
“I just know it’s really tough to get the last three outs of the game, and the best teams that I’ve been a part of, you always have a good closer,” Johnson said. “That guy is extremely gifted at blocking out the situation, the circumstances, focusing on the target and attacking the mitt and then repeating it, and he’s pretty darn good at that. And our season’s been on the line several times, and that’s who I trust, and that’s who’s getting that opportunity at the end.”
Wednesday’s outing showed the extent of that trust, as Ming immediately pitched his way into trouble. Not overpowering—he sits 86-88 mph—Ming hung a slider to Clay Fisher in the ninth to give up a double to start the ninth, then walked three-hole hitter Devon Gradford to bring the potential tying run to the plate.
That potential tying run came in the form of 6-foot-6, 265 pound UCSB first baseman Austin Bush, who has hit several game-changing home runs this season, including a walk-off home run for the Gauchos back in the Nashville Regional.
Ming was well aware of Bush’s heroics, and he was certainly aware of the Gauchos’ walk-off grand slam to stun Louisville in the super regional a couple of weeks ago. Those highlights crept through Ming’s mind as pitching coach Dave Lawn walked to the mound.
Suddenly, the fun and games had ended.
“Coach Lawn came out and said, ‘Listen, this guy is going to try to tie it up right here, so you have to make sure everything is down,’” Ming said. “So right away, it clicked in my mind, ‘If I’m gonna miss, I’m gonna miss down.’
“It was the most serious mound visit he’s had all year. So I was kind of like, ‘Woah.’ But I just made sure that I kept everything down.”
Ming indeed kept everything down. He struck out Bush on three pitches.
Then he struck out J.J. Muno. Then he struck out Dempsey Grover, and he celebrated with his teammates on the field for surviving another day in Omaha. And then the intense, ice-cold-veined closer flipped his switch back to goofy lefthander and walked into the Arizona clubhouse and addressed his non-mustached teammates.
“It was announced today after the game,” Ming said, “if you have facial hair and can do it, you better have a mustache come tomorrow.”
Ming takes looseness seriously.