On Friday afternoon, the Arizona baseball team savored its Game 11 victory over Oklahoma State, a 9-3 win that both fended off elimination and moved the Wildcats one step closer to a College World Series finals berth. Their celebration contained traces of the same quirky, water-bottle spraying, towel-twirling, mustache-growing, rally cap-sporting gusto that they’ve used throughout the entire 2016 postseason. Those antics have made the team a darling of ESPN camera and have even inspired some copycat efforts from Omaha locals in the grandstands.
But while Friday evening’s happiness was evident, it wasn’t quite as unhinged as the images of which CWS fans have become accustomed. The Wildcats spilled into the TD Ameritrade Park tunnel after their win looking tired. Their tones were unusually muted. Their swaths of eye-black were runny. They even looked a little worried … but only a little.
“That’s four games in six days,” rookie CWS head coach Jay Johnson exclaimed to his team as they prepared to load the bus back to their hotel. “Let’s hope we have to play at least three more over the next four days.”
Yes, they won. Yes, they will play OSU in a Saturday rematch, the winner advancing to Monday night’s best-of-three CWS championship series. However, as the Series grinds through the one-week mark, the Wildcats might have to press ahead without the services of their ace, Nathan Bannister, he of the 12-2 record and All-Pac-12 honors.
The senior righty started Friday’s contest and appeared to be cruising toward another of his signature deep-inning performances, having surrendered no hits and striking out five of the nine batters he faced before leaving the game with tightness in his pitching arm.
“Coach said, ‘No one wants to win more than Bannister,'” recalled rightfielder Zach Gibbons, who responded with a 3-for-5, two RBI effort. “‘He went out and competed to the full extent that he could give … so we should do that. We should go out there and do it for him.'”
Just what exactly that full extent might be, we won’t know for a while. On Friday evening Johnson said he was optimistic that after the pitcher was checked out, it “would prove to be nothing.” Who knows? Should Arizona make the best-of-three CWS finals series and the diagnosis turn out to be minimal, the team’s No. 1 pitcher might have one more night of Arizona glory left in the tank.
“If Banny comes back, look out,” Salazar said. “But even if he doesn’t, he’s shown us how to compete.”