When he arrived at Arizona last year, baseball coach Jay Johnson had a vision for what a top Pac-12 starting pitcher should look like. Several of the Wildcats’ returning pitchers didn’t fit that mold.
So Johnson made it a mandate: The staff would have to get in better shape.
That group included senior-to-be Nathan Bannister, who knew Johnson was on to something.
Although he had led Arizona in victories in 2015, Bannister was less effective in conference play. Bannister’s overall ERA was 3.98; in Pac-12 games, it swelled to 5.68. He had a 7-5 overall record but was just 3-5 in league games.
So Bannister enthusiastically embraced Johnson’s decree. Bannister formulated a plan with strength-and-conditioning coach Jim Krumpos, who altered Bannister’s workout and eating habits.
The results have bordered on spectacular: Bannister has a 4-1 record with a 3.23 ERA. He ranks second in the Pac-12 with 55º innings pitched. He has become a workhorse for Arizona, which opens a three-game home series against Stanford on Friday. Bannister is scheduled to start Game 1.
“I just feel more efficient,” Bannister said. “Not tired. Just putting in good habits. And I think I recover quickly compared to what I used to.”
Bannister, who’s listed at 6-foot-3, said he weighed between 235 and 240 pounds last summer. The right-hander from Liberty High in Peoria ended fall ball at 222 and remains in that range.
Dietary changes have played a significant role in Bannister’s transformation. He eats breakfast on a regular basis now, consuming foods like yogurt, cantaloupe and egg whites. Snacks no longer consist of chips but strawberries, bananas and apples with peanut butter. Sweets are limited. Meal portions are smaller.
“I felt like he needed to get in a lot better shape,” Johnson said. “He’s taken the bull by the horns. He’s done that and a lot more.”
Bannister earned Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week honors after tossing eight scoreless innings against Washington State last Friday. He allowed three hits, struck out seven batters and threw a season-high 130 pitches. He allowed only one baserunner to reach third base over his final seven innings.
Bannister has dominated at home, compiling a 4-0 record and a 0.83 ERA. In four of his five starts at Hi Corbett Field, he hasn’t surrendered a run. Bannister’s aggressive style plays well in the Wildcats’ cavernous stadium.
“He pounds the strike zone,” Johnson said of Bannister, who has walked only 10 batters. “He does not give teams a lot of free bases. And you really have to earn your runs in this ballpark. The three-run homer is essentially a non-factor. So it takes multiple quality at-bats in an inning to score one run. He just doesn’t give much away.”
Arizona’s 7-5 loss at Arizona State on Tuesday marked the third time in a row in which the Wildcats fell behind in the first inning. In the game before that, Bannister loaded the bases in the first before pitching out of the jam.
Johnson and his staff have addressed the slow starts with the team, in particular the starting pitchers. Arizona (20-13, 5-7 Pac-12) is 2-6 when trailing after the first inning.
“We put a lot of emphasis on their routines, their pregame preparation, how they lead up to taking the mound in the first inning,” Johnson said. “We’ll continue to revisit that and get them on the right track.”
• Right-hander Bobby Dalbec (7-3, 3.07 ERA) is scheduled to start Saturday for the UA. Lefty JC Cloney (3-2, 2.72) is slated to start the series finale Sunday.
• Stanford (18-9, 6-3) has won six of its past seven games and four consecutive series. The Cardinal entered this week tied for first in the nation in fielding percentage (.986). They rank first in the Pac-12 and fifth in the country in ERA (2.43).
• UA senior shortstop Cody Ramer leads the Pac-12 with 49 hits and ranks third in the conference with a .368 batting average. Ramer hit just .178 last season and entered this year with a .218 career average.