JC Cloney is an obvious choice to start the Arizona Wildcats’ season opener Friday night against Eastern Kentucky.
The senior left-hander is Arizona’s most experienced starter. He pitched the opener last year and shut down Rice. He became one of the best pitchers on one of the nation’s best teams, compiling an 8-4 record with a 2.45 ERA.
Less obvious: whether Cloney would be a member of the 2017 Wildcats at all.
At the end of last year’s College World Series, which Arizona came within one hit of winning, Cloney faced an uncertain future. He had pitched brilliantly in Omaha, throwing 16 scoreless innings in two sterling starts. But his arm was fatigued, he was on track to graduate later that summer and he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next.
The 22-year-old Cloney considered three main options: sign with a pro team, return to Arizona or stop playing baseball to begin pursuing a career in law enforcement. For a while, the latter seemed the most likely scenario.
“You got the sense he was probably going to move on with his life,” UA pitching coach Dave Lawn said.
Cloney returned home to Castaic, California, in early July. He recalled a conversation with his travel-ball coach, Sean Thompson.
“Good last outing, right?” Cloney said, referring to his shutout in the College World Series finals against Coastal Carolina.
“You’re not done,” Thompson replied.
It was true. Cloney hadn’t completely closed that chapter of his life. But he hadn’t been selected in the MLB draft, either, so that option was cloudy at best. Returning to Arizona remained a possibility. Lawn and UA coach Jay Johnson gave Cloney their best pitch.
Lawn told him that Arizona really wanted him, that another good season would improve his draft stock and that “you can only do this one time.”
Johnson emphasized the opportunity to spend one more season with his teammates, leading them and leaving a legacy.
“He means a lot to our program,” Johnson said. “He obviously meant a lot to last year’s team. I knew he would mean a lot to this year’s team.”
“He wanted me back. I knew that,” Cloney said. “It was kind of getting all the stars aligned. Once they did … it was, ‘All right, I’m coming back.’ ”
Cloney had given his adviser an early-August deadline: If a free agent offer didn’t materialize, he would go back to school.
Cloney needed to get into a graduate program, though. He ended up in journalism, a field with which he had little familiarity. (Cloney earned his degree in psychology).
He came to view it as a challenge. He is attacking his final college season the same way — determined to top his indisputably successful UA debut.
Once he knew he was coming back, Cloney went to work with strength coach Jim Krumpos. Lawn described their regimen as “the prizefighter plan,” and the results are evident in Cloney’s remodeled physique.
Listed at 6 feet 2 inches and 234 pounds, Cloney has lowered his body fat to 15 percent. He worked on strengthening his back, chest and legs after his arm “kind of gave out later in the season.” He increased the amount he can squat by 60 pounds.
“The energy level is up,” Cloney said. “With this squad, if you don’t have the energy, you get left out.”
Cloney also worked to improve his changeup. Where it once was his fourth most-trusted pitch, it’s now his second, behind the fastball he can spot for strikes as well as anyone. Cloney walked only 22 batters in 110ª innings last season.
With his new, stronger body, Cloney is hitting the upper 80s with his fastball. But his success never has hinged on velocity. It’s one of many examples he sets for the younger members of the pitching staff.
Cloney is renowned for his in-game focus and preparation between starts. When fall practice begins, Lawn always matches veterans with newcomers. He made sure Cloney threw with a different pitcher every day so they all could learn from him.
“That mentoring mentality … comes naturally for him, where it doesn’t always for some people because they’re competitive,” Lawn said. “There’s always that little part (where) you don’t want to make this guy too good. JC’s always comfortable in his own skin.”
Cloney willingly has stepped into the leadership void created by the departures of Nathan Bannister, Bobby Dalbec and others. Cloney is one of only three UA pitchers classified as seniors, along with Austin Schnabel and Luke Soroko. No one on the staff can match Cloney’s big-game starting experience.
“Successful experience breeds confidence,” Johnson said. “He pitched opening night last year. I’m sure he’ll draw from that and help our team settle into the game.”
Cloney knows what it’s like to pitch in front of thousands of fans, whether they’re with him or against him. He knows what the younger pitchers soon will realize: that no matter how much adrenaline is pumping through your system, you have to “slow the game down” and trust the work that got you to this point.
No one — including Cloney — knew 7½ months ago that he’d be back at Hi Corbett Field, pitching for the Wildcats. It turned out to be the right decision for all parties involved.
“He’s our No. 1 recruit,” Lawn said. “There are others that are actually on that list. But he’s our No. 1 recruit. I can’t imagine this pitching staff without him.”