Arizona pitcher Nathan Bannister didn’t look like he’d thrown 96 pitches on Friday.
The Wildcats’ Monday starter went seven stellar innings on two days’ rest, giving up five hits and striking out five in leading Arizona to a 6-3 win over Louisiana-Lafayette and forcing a winner-take-all game for the NCAA Lafayette regional title.
Bannister (11-2) was just short of 100 pitches in Friday’s tournament-opening 7-3 victory over Sam Houston State, but Arizona coach Jay Johnson tabbed him for Monday’s first start even before Sunday’s elimination-game win over SHSU was over.
“Last night he told me after the game ended,” said Bannister, who threw six shutout innings before the host Ragin’ Cajuns got a run in the seventh and a two-run homer from Joe Robbins in the eighth. “Saturday we had the rainout, and I got a good lift in and conditioning at the hotel. That flushed out the soreness.”
Johnson was asked following the first game Monday about starting the senior on short rest, not long after Bannister threw 102 pitches in Monday’s opener.
“We don’t ever attach anything to what we’re doing,” he said. “Everybody knows the consequences of these games. That being said, this young man can do no wrong in my eyes. I would never compromise anything with him, or his future, unless we didn’t have 100 percent conviction and commitment to completing this task.”
UL-Lafayette starter Evan Guillory only pitched to four Wildcat batters in Monday’s opener, giving up a single, a hit batsman, a walk and a two-run double to Ryan Aguilar before being lifted for reliever Will Bacon.
Arizona eventually pushed across three runs in the first inning and never trailed after that.
It was the second straight start that the sophomore from Jennings failed to retire a batter. In last Saturday’s semifinal of the Sun Belt Conference tournament, Guillory faced five Arkansas State hitters and allowed four hits and a hit batsman. In that game, the Cajuns trailed 6-0 after one inning but rallied with 13 runs in a three-inning span in a 17-10 victory.
“He got some fastballs that were supposed to be in that weren’t in much,” said Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux. “He let them leak out over the plate. He’s thrown well at home. I felt what happened last time is just something that happens. You don’t ever want to give up on them.
“It was me that started him, so today’s on me, not on Evan.”
A side note: NCAA representatives wanted Guillory to attend the postgame media interview session along with Robichaux, citing NCAA tournament procedure that calls for the starting pitcher to be available. Robichaux rightly refused and instead brought Bacon, who worked six innings and scattered six hits.
Visitors at home
The Cajuns were the visiting team in both Monday games, because of the fact that they had been the home team in both previous regional games and Arizona had been the designated visiting team in its last two.
That put UL-Lafayette in the unfamiliar first-base dugout, a place they hadn’t been since hosting the 2014 Super Regional against Ole Miss.
Statistically, there has been no advantage for either unbeaten teams or one-loss teams when forced to a regional winner-take-all game.
Entering Monday night, since the current NCAA tournament format was installed in 1999, there had been 100 instances where the team with one loss had beaten the unbeaten team in the bracket’s Game 6, and had forced a winner-take-all Game 7.
In those 100 games, the Game 6 winner went on to also win Game 7 50 times, while the Game 6 loser had come back to win Game 7 50 times.
After UL-Lafayette found success with bunts and the short game in its 10-3 win over the Wildcats on Sunday, Arizona provided some turnabout fair-play in Monday’s opening game.
The Wildcats put down seven bunts in the 6-3 victory, using three in the fourth inning to score their final run. Two bunts came in the second inning when Arizona scored two, and a squeeze bunt in the first plated the final run in that inning.
On that play, the Wildcats tried the double-squeeze in an attempt to score two runs, just as the Cajuns did in Sunday’s fifth inning. Arizona scored one on the play, but Aguilar was thrown out at the plate trying for the two-run bunt.
“We were ready for it,” said Bacon, who had entered the game in relief one batter before Bobby Dalbec put down the one-out bunt. “We had actually talked about it on the mound.”
Robichaux gave credit to Arizona’s use of the bunt game.
“Two of those extended innings,” he said. “We try to work on that in practice. We want to throw a strike and make sure to get an out. The problem with the bunt is when you mishandle it, then you can let an inning spin out of control.”
The Cajuns failed to get an out on three of Arizona’s seven bunts in Monday’s opener.
In UL-Lafayette’s last host appearance in a regional, the Cajuns swept Games 6 and 7 against Mississippi State after a first-day loss in 2014 in advancing to the super regional round. The Cajuns’ only other host season was in 2000, when they won three straight games before winning the super regional at South Carolina to advance to their only College World Series. … Cajun catcher Nick Thurman, who has caught every pitch of the 64-game season, changed into a completely new uniform in Monday’s seventh inning of the opener. He still wore his regular number 6, but the grey uniform had different trim color on that number.