Late-blooming Nathan Bannister has become Arizona’s ace

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Nathan Bannister’s journey from star pitcher at Peoria’s Liberty High School to ace at the University of Arizona stretched much longer than the 141 miles between the two campuses. It included a profound 7,000-mile-plus detour through Alaska. And a critical 2-foot slide across the pitching rubber.

Bannister has emerged as the Wildcats’ No. 1 starter during his senior season, compiling a team-best 9-2 record with a 2.72 ERA in mainly Friday-night assignments. He’ll start either Friday or Saturday as Arizona travels to Lafayette, Louisiana, for NCAA Regionals.

Pitching 1,275 miles from home in a high-stakes game in muggy conditions in front of fans mostly rooting for the other team is unlikely to faze Bannister, who always has exuded a “quiet confidence,” according to his mother, Janette.

 “He’s always been a person who doesn’t get too high or low,” she said. “He seems to roll with things really well.”

That trait has come in handy during an up-and-down college career that’s finishing with a crescendo.

Bannister pitched minimally as a freshman and sophomore; he did not factor into a decision over 19 º innings. He emerged as a starter late last season and ended up leading the team with seven victories. But it wasn’t until this season — deep into it, in fact — that he became the top-of-the-rotation pitcher he always was capable of becoming.

“This was waiting to happen,” said senior left-hander Cody Moffett, who has known Bannister since they were teens. “I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”

Everyone’s path is different. Bannister put together an ace-like résumé at Liberty, helping the Lions win a state championship as a sophomore and leading them to a runner-up finish as a senior. After appearing in only three games as a freshman at the UA, Bannister played summer ball in the Alaska Baseball League. He considers it a career-changing experience.

“It was tremendous,” Bannister said. “That was one of the most fun times I’ve had as a baseball player. We’re all away from home – pretty far away from home. We just have each other. We just had a good team chemistry. And the coaches really pushed us to become better players.

“It was a great experience. It really made me into the pitcher I am today.”

Bannister and Moffett played for the Alaska Goldpanners and helped them win the league championship. Bannister went 6-0 with a 2.42 ERA; Moffett went 2-0 with a 0.63 ERA.

The two had the great fortune of working under former Arizona State pitching coach and major-league scout Tim Kelly. The team sometimes had to travel eight or nine hours by bus for games. The pitchers would spend some of that time talking shop with Kelly. Bannister remains in touch with the coach fondly known as “T.K.”

“We basically learned how to pitch there,” Moffett said, “and we saw the results of knowing how to pitch.”

Despite that shot of confidence, Bannister still didn’t see those kinds of results at the UA. His college career took a turn for the better when Jay Johnson and his staff arrived last year. They knew they would need Bannister, one of the few returning pitchers on the roster with substantial experience. They just weren’t completely sure what they would get out of him.

So the new staff urged Bannister to go above and beyond to reach his potential.

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“Learning how to work is just like learning how to hit a curveball or throw a curveball,” UA pitching coach Dave Lawn said. “It takes time sometimes.”

First, the staff demanded that Bannister (and his teammates) get in better shape. He fully embraced that mandate, dramatically altering his workout routine and diet. Those changes resulted in increased velocity and stamina.

“You can just tell he has a different vision in the weight room, a different vision on the field,” senior outfielder Zach Gibbons said. “It’s really cool to see him grow.”

Bannister pitched eight or more innings in six of his final eight regular-season starts, including complete-game victories over Stanford, Cal and Oregon State. Bannister’s dominance at Hi Corbett Field became so routine that reliever Tyler Crawford jokingly began to refer to Friday home games as “my day off.”

The fitter the 6-foot-3-inch right-hander became, the better he pitched.

“Because he’s done such a good job with that, you’re continuing to see his performance go like this,” Johnson said, using his hand to mimic an ascending airplane. “He’s better than he was early in the year – and he was pretty good early in the year.”

Bannister had an excellent stretch in early March, pitching 19ª consecutive scoreless innings in victories over Cal State Fullerton, Northwestern State and Sacramento State. But Lawn believed Bannister was capable of more and told him as much after his worst outing of the season. Bannister allowed 10 hits and seven runs in 5º innings at Washington on March 19.

“You’re 22 years old,” Lawn told Bannister. “This is your fourth year. You start, you finish. If you’re going to start Friday, you’ve got to get us into the seventh, eighth or ninth.”

“Ever since then,” Lawn said, “he got on a real roll. He’s done a really spectacular job.”

Bannister took to Lawn’s coaching just as he did Kelly’s. Lawn preaches pitching down in the zone — the Wildcats refer to themselves as “PDU,” short for “Pound Down University” – and Bannister has done that with regularity. Lawn had Bannister move from the first-base to the third-base side of the rubber to create more deception against right-handed batters. Bannister also added a slider to his repertoire, giving him a fourth pitch to go along with a fastball, curveball and changeup.

“I felt like I was too rotational with my delivery,” Bannister said. “So we really worked on getting linear.”

Unlike his journey, which has been anything but.

“He had a tough road to get it done and get to the point where he is now,” said Kelly, who hopes to have Bannister back in Alaska this summer — but knows his success makes that possibility increasingly unlikely.

“He persevered. That’s a great quality to have.”

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