OMAHA, Neb. -- Arizona pushed forward in the College World Series on Wednesday night, eliminating UC Santa Barbara with a 3-0 victory behind seven shutout innings from left-hander JC Cloney, strong defense and a bit of timely hitting.
The Wildcats mastered the TD Ameritrade Park formula for success, reinforced this week by a south breeze that maintains afternoon temperatures above 90 degrees and seemingly extends the acres of running room for outfielders to catch everything that doesn't touch the bat of TCU freshman Luken Baker.
"Strikes here really play," said UCSB coach Andrew Checketts, whose team was shut out in two of three CWS games.
The lone Pac-12 rep at the CWS earned a rematch on Friday with Oklahoma State (ESPN2, 3 p.m. ET). The Cowboys, unbeaten in seven NCAA postseason games, have played Omaha baseball to perfection with a pair of 1-0 victories. However, if there's any team capable of beating Oklahoma State at its own game, Arizona might be the one.
After Cloney's Wednesday gem, Arizona sets up nicely as senior ace Nathan Bannister readies to pitch Friday with five days of rest. Bannister, who has thrown a nation-leading 139.2 innings this year and 27 in the postseason, beat Miami 5-1 in the Arizona's CWS opener.
Earlier this month, he beat host Louisiana-Lafayette on two days of rest in the regional, as Arizona came back from a second-round loss to advance. The Wildcats must match that feat in two more win-or-go-home games in Omaha -- both against Oklahoma State, which plans to start freshman Jensen Elliott in the next game.
Most intriguing, perhaps, for Arizona, is that if it wins a favorable Friday pitching matchup and forces a winner-take-all bracket championship on Saturday -- where it would presumably face recently unhittable Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Thomas Hatch -- the Wildcats could go with 10-win junior Bobby Dalbec on the mound.
All Dalbec did in his last outing was fan 12 Cowboys over eight innings during a 1-0 loss on Monday.
Think the fourth-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox would like another crack at Oklahoma State?
"They're a beatable team," Dalbec said Wednesday night. "And we're rolling."
Arizona won the 2012 national title with five straight wins in Omaha. Its pitchers dominated, and the Wildcats benefited from the familiarity of this park. They play their home games at cavernous Hi Corbett Field in Tucson.
"We're used to pitching a certain way," Dalbec said.
First-year coach Jay Johnson looks like a wizard at this CWS with his horses on the mound. And no one works harder than Bannister, the next guy up.
Bannister lost nearly 40 pounds in the offseason and turned himself into a 28th-round pick of the Seattle Mariners this month. He threw three complete games in a four-game stretch in April.
The victory over Miami in Omaha was his 12th in 14 decisions.
"I'm ready for Friday," Bannister said after the win over UCSB. "This is all you can ask for as a pitcher at this time of year. What we've shown over the past three games is that we have the ability to compete with anybody in the nation."
Johnson said the right-hander reinvented himself this year.
"He looked like Greg Maddux in the bullpen today," the coach said. "He's Billy Chapel from that movie, 'For Love of the Game.' I love handing the ball to him."
Oklahoma State has no problem, though, handing the ball to Elliott. He's 9-2 in 16 starts, and he struck out a career-high eight against Clemson in regional play, allowing one run in six innings.
The Cowboys own a 0.71 ERA in the postseason, led by Hatch, whom OSU, no doubt, would prefer to save until Monday for the opening game of the championship series.
If Oklahoma State wins Friday, the plan works. If not, look for Hatch on Saturday. It's the same setup in Bracket 2, with Texas Tech and Coastal Carolina to play Thursday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET). The winner gets TCU on Friday and must beat the Horned Frogs to face a rematch on Saturday.
Of the remaining teams with one loss, none looks as suited to make a run as the Wildcats.
"I feel great about it," said Johnson, 39, who took the job at Arizona last June after two seasons at Nevada. "It's not always the team with the best players. It's the team that plays the best that day.
"We have a chance to play great. And if we play great, we have a chance to win. That all starts on the mound."
In this ballpark, in this College World Series full of great pitching and defense, those guys on the mound loom especially large.