The day after Jay Johnson was introduced as Arizona's new head baseball coach during a press conference last June, he packed up and headed to California to recruit JUCO pitcher J.C. Cloney.
"I just thought it was important to get to him because I felt like it was realistic of him showing up," Johnson told Omaha.com before Cloney took the mound in the opening game of the College World Series Finals against Coastal Carolina. "I thought he could be a key piece to what we were doing—and we're not here without him. So he was the No. 1 priority."
Cloney proved he was worth the trip on Monday night, shutting out one of the most dangerous offenses in all of college baseball with a 3-0 complete game victory that moves the Wildcats to within one win of a national championship.
Ten of the last 13 teams to win the opening game of the national championship series went on to lift the trophy. Seven of those teams wrapped the series up in two games, a feat Arizona will attempt to achieve on Tuesday night in Game 2.
Shutting out Coastal Carolina is no small feat, mind you. This is a club that leads the country in home runs and came into Monday night averaging over 7.2 runs per game. Their offense had been blanked just once all season, and that was in the first week of March.
Part of that, of course, can be attributed to the notoriously pitcher-friendly confines of the ballpark. After regional and super regional rounds that crushed the home record for the modern bat era, we've seen just nine balls get over the deep outfield walls of TD Ameritrade in 126 innings. Pair that with wind that typically blows in and thick outfield grass that all but kills the odds of rolling a gapper to the wall, and scoring as a whole has been historically low: the 6.6 combined runs per game is the lowest output in Omaha history.
But to chalk up Coastal's offensive struggles to deep walls and a high mower setting would be to cheapen Cloney's incredible performance. Aside from a couple of warning track shots in the eighth inning (one of which was admittedly about two feet from leaving the yard), there were virtually no well-hit balls off Coastal's powerful bats. On a rare night in which the wind was blowing out, Clowney pounded the bottom of the zone and forced groundout after groundout, which were vacuumed up by a brilliantly positioned defense.
The Arizona infielders, who trot out of the dugout with scouting cards on each opposing hitter, shift on nearly every at-bat. The strategy worked to near perfection on Monday night, when it seemed like everything off the bat of a Coastal hitter beelined to a shifted fielder. It's a credit to first-year coach Jay Johnson and his staff, who have taken advantage of the televised postseason games and put in long hours mapping out spray charts.
Cloney allowed just four hits, walked only two and struck out six. It's his second win of the College World Series, having blanked UC Santa Barbara over seven frames during last week's elimination game win. Through 16 innings in Omaha, Cloney hasn't allowed a single run.
Coastal's Zack Hopeck wasn't too shabby himself, shaking off a rough start to allow two runs on five hits over a career-long 6.1 innings of work. His very first pitch of the game was a double off the bat of Cody Ramer, who two batters later came around to give Arizona a 1-0 first-inning lead. A leadoff single and double to begin the third had Hopeck on the ropes, but he wiggled out of the jam with no damage done and cruised for the next three frames.
A leadoff single in the sixth followed by a sac bunt sent Hopeck to the dugout and brought on reliever Cole Schaefer, who promptly issued a wild pitch and a walk. A poor relay on a sac fly and single brought in two more Arizona runs and provided the final margin of victory.