MLB.com Columnist

Jim Callis

Behind Cloney, Arizona one win from CWS title

Coastal Carolina in 0-1 hole in best-of-three Series

Behind Cloney, Arizona one win from CWS title

OMAHA, Neb. -- The first item on Jay Johnson's to-do list after he took the Arizona coaching job last June was to shore up a commitment from J.C. Cloney. He caught a 6 a.m. flight the day following his introductory press conference to visit the Castaic, Calif., home of Cloney, who had agreed to play for Johnson's predecessor, Andy Lopez.

"I knew for us to have any success after evaluating our program, we needed more starting pitching," said Johnson, who had recruited Cloney out of West Ranch High (Stevenson Ranch, Calif.) when he was the top assistant at San Diego. "I knew with his three- to four-pitch mix, being left-handed, his ability to throw strikes, he had a chance to be very, very valuable. And he's been more than very, very valuable."

On Monday night, Cloney pitched Arizona to within one game of a national title by going the distance in a 3-0 shutout of Coastal Carolina. It was the fourth shutout in the championship round in CWS history, the first since Louisiana State's Brett Laxton struck out 16 in the 1993 final against Wichita State and the first since the event went to a best-of-three final series in 2003. Cloney also pitched seven scoreless innings to beat UC Santa Barbara last Wednesday, and his total of 16 innings without permitting a run is a record for a single Series.

"He was that guy that was bigger than life today," Chanticleers coach Gary Gilmore said. "He beat us pretty much by himself."

Cloney allowed only one hit and one other ball to be hit out of the infield in the first six innings and recorded 14 groundouts altogether. He's not overpowering but commanded his 85-87 mph fastball exceptionally well and confounded Coastal Carolina by mixing in breaking balls, cutters and changeups. After the first two batters reached to bring the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, he induced senior right fielder Connor Owings to ground into a double play and fanned junior DH G.K. Young on a breaker.

"You want to sit on a fastball and he throws you a cutter," said Chanticleers junior shortstop Michael Paez, a Mets fourth-round pick who hit the hardest ball of Cloney all night, a blast that senior right fielder Zach Gibbons (Angels, 17th round) snared with a leaping grab against the fence in the eighth inning. "And you sit on the offspeed and he throws you a fastball. He just threw a great game. It's hard to hit when you have a guy that's going to add and subtract, throw three pitches for strikes and keep you off balance all game."

Undrafted this June as a redshirt junior, Cloney improved to 8-4 with a team-best 2.45 ERA by scattering four hits and three walks while striking out six. He threw 122 pitches, 77 for strikes, and handed Coastal its first shutout in 59 games.

"It feels like a dream and I still haven't woken up yet," Cloney said. "It seems like just a couple of weeks ago we were in the loser's bracket at the Lafayette Regional and we snuck out of it. Now here we are. It's going to suck if I wake up tomorrow and this is a dream."

Cloney's dreams of pitching at the NCAA Division I level initially were dashed when he came down with a stress fracture in his elbow while a freshman at Long Beach State in 2013. The 49ers pulled his scholarship, so he transferred to the College of the Canyons (Calif.), where he went 14-7 in two junior college seasons before coming to Arizona.

"I didn't really have any doubts I could come back from the stress fracture until Long Beach State told me some things that were not real nice to say," Cloney said. "But that's what pushes you as an athlete, what makes you better."

Arizona (49-22) can win its fifth CWS championship and first since 2012 with a victory either Tuesday or Wednesday night. Coastal Carolina (53-18), which seeks its first national title and the Big South Conference's first in any sport, must win both games. The Chanticleers are 4-0 in elimination games during the NCAA playoffs, rallying from two runs down in the ninth inning of a regional championship contest against North Carolina State and winning three straight in Omaha after losing to Texas Christian in the second round.

Monday's game
Arizona 3, Coastal Carolina 0

Tuesday's game
Coastal Carolina at Arizona, 8 p.m. ET

Wednesday's game
Coastal Carolina at Arizona, 8 p.m. ET (if necessary)

Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.