By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The juniors have played in California twice: first in Fullerton and then, last year, in Irvine. The sophomores have played in Irvine.
The list of UVa baseball players who have participated in an NCAA regional in Charlottesville is much, much shorter. The Cavaliers’ roster includes only four fourth-year players, and one of them, catcher Franco Valdes, was at a junior college in 2007.
That’s when Virginia hosted a regional that also included Oregon State, Lafayette and Rutgers.
“It was a great experience for me as a freshman,” senior shortstop Tyler Cannon recalled Thursday, particularly the Cavaliers’ extra-innings victory over eventual NCAA champion Oregon State in their second game.
“It was an unbelievable feeling, and I’m just glad we can be back here with our fans.”
Sophomore John Hicks agreed. “We’ve had some unbelievable crowds this year,” he said, “and it should carry over into the regional.”
For the seventh time in Brian O’Connor‘s seven seasons as UVa’s coach, his team has reached the NCAA tournament. For the fourth time, Virginia is hosting a double-elimination regional on the tourney’s opening weekend.
It starts Friday at 4 p.m. — weather permitting — when top-seeded Virginia (47-11) meets No. 4 seed VCU (34-24-1) at Davenport Field.
In each of the previous regionals at Davenport (2004, ’06 and ’07), the Wahoos were ousted. Not until last year, in fact, when they won at Irvine, did the ‘Hoos advance to a super regional.
“I don’t think that has anything to do with us hosting,” O’Connor said. “I think that’s just baseball. We just didn’t get it done.
“I know that I don’t have any magic formula to winning it at home. It’s just going out and playing solid baseball, and hopefully the game comes your way a little bit. And if it does, we’ll advance. If it doesn’t, somebody else will.”
Virginia, which won the ACC’s regular-season title, is 30-4 at home this year. The ‘Hoos embraced the role of road warriors in 2009, when they won in Irvine and then in Oxford, Miss., to advance to the College World Series, but they’re exactly where they want to be this weekend.
“Absolutely,” Cannon said. “In front of our fans, playing in our home park. There’s no place I’d rather be than here in Charlottesville.”
The pitcher who will start for UVa against Colonial Athletic Association champion VCU — junior right-hander Cody Winiarski — has never appeared in an NCAA tournament game. Winiarski (5-0, 4.39 ERA) played for a junior college in Wisconsin in 2008 and ’09.
In Friday’s second game, second-seeded Mississippi (38-22) is scheduled to face No. 3 seed St. John’s (40-18) at 8 p.m. Friday’s losers will meet in an elimination game at 1 p.m. Saturday, the winners at 6 p.m.
The ACC pitcher of the year, sophomore left-hander Danny Hultzen, will start for the Cavaliers on Saturday. Hultzen is 9-1 with a 2.43 ERA.
Late in the regular season he struggled with his control, but Hultzen struck out five and walked none in UVa’s win over Miami in the ACC tournament last weekend. He also gave up six hits and seven runs, which didn’t thrill him, but overall Hultzen came away pleased.
“I do feel better,” he said Monday. “I gave up a lot of runs on Saturday, but didn’t walk anybody. That was the main point. They just hit the ball, and I didn’t give it away.”
A season ago, when he was ACC freshman of the year, Hultzen played in virtually every game. If Hultzen wasn’t pitching, O’Connor would use him at first base or as designated hitter.
His role this year has been more defined. O’Connor wanted his ace to get more rest, and rarely has Hultzen played in games in which he hasn’t pitched.
“I remember last year going into the playoffs, and it was kind of that late-season drag, but there’s none of that this year,” Hultzen said. “I feel great. That rest has helped me a lot, I feel like.”
Since that first regional in 2004, Davenport has been expanded several times, and its capacity this weekend is 4,801. Over the years, O’Connor said, he’s modified his approach to postseason play at home, too.
“I think initially when you host your first regional, there’s just a lot of outside influences,” he said. “There’s a lot of things to take care of, whether it be tickets and parking [or other matters].
“Doing anything the first time, there’s an unknown. Because we have a great staff here of facilities people and administrators to run this thing, I’ve actually been able to remove myself from it and just let them completely run the show.”
That’s allowed O’Connor and his players to focus on baseball, “so they’re not caught up in the craziness of hosting a regional either,” he said. “So hopefully getting rid of some of that outside noise allows them just to concentrate on competing and playing.”
Virginia, the No. 5 overall seed in the 64-team NCAA tournament, has spent much of the season ranked No. 1 nationally by Baseball America. With all of their starting position players back from a College World Series team, the ‘Hoos were supposed to be special this year, and they’ve lived up to expectations.
That figures to bode well for UVa in the NCAAs.
“I’ve said this over and over, but this team never panics,” O’Connor said. “They just go out and play the game the same way all the time. If we fall down in a game, they don’t come unraveled. They just continue to play. They’ve bounced back after losses or difficult points in the game like no other team that I’ve coached. A lot of that has to do with [having] veteran players, but a lot of it has to do with the type of people they are.
“They’re playing with a ton of confidence, and they believe in themselves, and they believe in their teammates. Those are tremendous qualities to have if you also have talent, which I believe we do.”