- Mitch Sherman, College Football
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OMAHA, Neb. -- Never mind the methodical, opportunistic offensive effort from Arizona on Sunday night in its 5-1 win over South Carolina at the College World Series.
These Wildcats sit one victory from a national championship largely because of their pitching. Their starting pitchers, to be more precise.
The Arizona starters are riding some kind of a crazy wave on the banks of the Missouri River. In Game 1 of the best-of-three championship series, sophomore Konner Wade tossed his second complete game of the CWS, throwing an efficient 110 pitches to handcuff the two-time defending national champs.
He shut out UCLA a week ago at TD Ameritrade Park. Before that, Wade threw a full nine in the Wildcats' super-regional clincher against St. John's and lasted eight innings in a regional-round blowout of Louisville.
"You give credit where credit is due," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said, "and that's with Konner Wade."
Nine games and nine wins into this NCAA postseason, Arizona starters have pitched into the eighth inning nine times. They've thrown five complete games -- not counting ace Kurt Heyer's 9 1/3-inning performance in a 10-inning win in the super regional.
In today's era of specialized relievers and pitch-count obsessions at every level of baseball, Arizona's antics on the mound rank as extraordinary. Its pitchers have thrown eight complete games in 19 opportunities since May 11 and 16 for the season.
For perspective, pitchers in the Southeastern Conference threw 14 complete games during the regular season this year. In the Atlantic Coast Conference, it was 12.
"I don't like doing it," Arizona coach Andy Lopez said. "If anybody looks at my history, I've had closers and relievers. I'd like a pen."
Midway through this season, Lopez sat down with his top starters -- the junior Heyer, Wade and sophomore James Farris. At 130 pitches, he said, you're done. Until then, have at it.
Lopez repeated his mantra: "As the pitching goes, the program goes." He told the struggling relievers the same thing. They'd wave towels and chart pitches for the rest of the season, he said, if things didn't improve in the bullpen.
"The starters have just kind of said, 'We'll do it. We'll do it,'" Lopez said.
For Wade, it's more remarkable, considering his plight this year. The 6-foot-3 right-hander from Scottsdale, Ariz., lost control of his arm weeks before the season opened in February. His struggles began in the bullpen before a practice game in which he was scheduled to pitch.
Wade couldn't throw a strike. Not even close.
"It was ridiculous," Lopez said.
Wade's struggles continued into the season. Eastern Michigan ripped him for seven runs on March 10. Washington State got six a week later. He walked four in one terrible inning on March 21 against New Mexico State.
"In that position, anybody could get in a little ball and wait for something to happen," Arizona shortstop Alex Mejia said. "Instead, he was out there more often. The way he worked after that, I knew he was going to do something great at the end of the year."
And here's Wade, the first pitcher since Jason Windsor of Cal State Fullerton in 2004 to throw two complete games in the same CWS. Wade is the catalyst for a pitching staff that has redefined dependability over the past six weeks.
"I don't really go into it thinking that I need to throw a complete game," Wade said. "I know I need to give my team seven strong innings. I've had the same mentality -- to just throw strikes and get ground balls."
He ran into little trouble on Sunday, surrendering one hit through five innings. When the Gamecocks, down 4-1, opened the seventh with two straight singles, Arizona right fielder Robert Refsnyder gunned down Adam Matthews as he tried to go first to third. Then Wade calmly escaped with a ground ball and fly out.
Arizona is making this look almost too easy. The Wildcats have used four pitchers in four games at the CWS. Lopez returned to the Hilton Omaha late on Sunday and sat down with his staff to discuss the Wildcats' pitching options for Monday night against South Carolina ace Michael Roth.
They can go with Heyer, who has thrown seven complete games and leads the nation in innings pitched after tossing 7 1/3 Thursday to eliminate Florida State. No doubt Heyer will want the ball, Lopez said.
But Lopez may opt for Farris, who fired a complete game -- what else? -- in the regional championship win. Farris has not pitched in Omaha.
Lopez solicited input on Sunday from Wade, Mejia and Refsnyder as they entered the news conference. They all voted for Farris. Really, there's no wrong decision. Either way, the Wildcats would have a fresh arm for Tuesday in a winner-take-all finale, though Lopez promised he won't remind his players about the importance of the next game.
"If they don't know what tomorrow means," the coach said, "I've got the dumbest group of athletes known to mankind."
Safe to say, they know.
Konner Wade turned in his second complete game gem for Arizona at the College World Series as the Wildcats took Game 1 of the championship series with South Carolina.