OMAHA—Jay Johnson was hired as Arizona’s coach June 8, 2015, replacing the retiring Andy Lopez. As Johnson first surveyed his new roster, he realized that to have success in his first season, the Wildcats would need some returning players to play better than they had to that point in their careers.
Saturday, little more than a year later, Arizona began the College World Series with a 5-1 victory against Miami, the No. 3 national seed. The victory sends the Wildcats to a winners’ bracket game Monday evening against Oklahoma State, while the Hurricanes will play UC Santa Barbara in an elimination game earlier that day. You can see the highlights here.
In Arizona’s victory—its first in the CWS since winning the national championship in 2012—its offense began, like it has much of the season, with seniors Cody Ramer and Zach Gibbons, two players who took the kind of step forward Johnson knew his team needed this season.
|GAME AT A GLANCE
|Turning Point: It came early, as Miami lefthander Michael Mediavilla struggled with his command in the first inning and the Wildcats took advantage, plating three runs—two on a single by center fielder Jared Oliva—to jump out to a quick 3-0 lead. The Wildcats never trailed from there.
The Hero: Arizona righthander Nathan Bannister has played the hero role often this postseason for Arizona, and he did it again Saturday night, tossing seven innings, allowing just one run and matching a career high with 11 strikeouts. Arizona has won each of Bannister’s last six starts. And he’s provided consistent length, with Saturday’s outing his 13th straight start of at least six innings.
You Might Have Missed: Though it came in a losing effort, Miami relievers Andrew Cabezas, Frankie Bartow and Bryan Garcia combined to allow just one hit in four scoreless innings, giving the Hurricanes’ offense a chance to claw back. The performance of the Miami bullpen was one of the team’s few bright spots Saturday, with the lineup leaving 10 men on base.
Ramer and Gibbons bat first and second in the Wildcats’ offense, and they set the tone Saturday. Facing Miami lefthander Michael Mediavilla, they started the top of the first with a walk and a hit batter, eventually coming around to score. Arizona jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the inning and never looked back.
“They’re on base every inning,” Johnson said. “I thought it was appropriate with Cody and Zach on base and nobody out, because that set the stage for the other guys. And they’ve done that all year.”
Gibbons said it was an “awesome” start to the game for the Wildcats.
“In this atmosphere, runs are hard to come by here,” he said. “Whatever way we can get on base, whether it’s a walk or a hit by pitch like me, I think it’s extremely important in this atmosphere.”
Ramer, the second baseman, finished the night 1-for-4 with two runs. Gibbons, the right fielder, went 2-for-3 with a run and two RBIs. It was more of the same for Arizona’s two leading hitters. Gibbons is hitting .381/.465/.437, with Ramer close behind at .352/.445/.498.
Both players have made significant statistical jumps in the last year. Gibbons was a regular last year, but hit .287/.352/.378. Ramer appeared in just 27 games (12 starts), and hit .178/.288/.178. Now, the pair is hitting atop a lineup that is two wins away from reaching the CWS finals.
Johnson said the coaching staff identified some things for Gibbons and Ramer to work on, both physically and mentally. Thanks to their athleticism and mental makeup, both were able to make the necessary adjustments and turn them into production.
“I wish I could coach those two my whole life,” Johnson said. “I told (recruiting coordinator) Sergio Brown in the middle of the year, I said, ‘You need to go find Cody Ramer again.’ Because that guy’s as valuable as it gets. And there’s nobody I want up at the plate more with two outs and runners in scoring position than Zach.”
Ramer and Gibbons enjoy hitting back-to-back in the lineup.
“I feel like he’s always on base whenever I’m hitting,” Gibbons said. “Whenever he gets out I feel like I have to get on base almost. But it’s awesome hitting behind him.”
“I can’t even put it into words,” Ramer said. “When I know he’s behind me, I know if I’m getting on base I’m moving over with him. So it’s a good feeling.”
In addition to the help from Arizona’s coaching staff, they help each other in the batting cage. Gibbons said one of the keys to being able to work together is that they each know the other’s hitting style.
“I think we’re the same hitter, just he’s a lefty, I’m a righty,” Gibbons said. “Just getting on base is super important, especially in this atmosphere. So we’re going to contribute in any way we can.”
Against Miami, those contributions led to both of Arizona’s run-scoring innings. After the three-run first, they also played a key role in adding two more runs in the fifth. After Louis Boyd led off the inning with a double, Ramer singled and Gibbons followed with a two-run double, only to be thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple.
Five runs was more than enough for Arizona with righthander Nathan Bannister (12-2, 2.64) on the mound. The senior stuck out 11 batters and held Miami to one run on eight hits and three walks in seven innings. Lefthander Cameron Ming threw two scoreless innings to finish of the victory.
It was a familiar formula for Arizona, with its offense producing key hits and getting enough pitching to win. And, as usual, it started at the top of the lineup with Gibbons and Ramer, two players whose emergence has led to the Wildcats’ surge this year.
The pair is enjoying the run and each other’s success. They are friends away from the field and were roommates during their sophomore and junior years.
“I’m as happy for him as I am for myself,” Ramer said. “We’ve been around each other a good amount.”