By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Two games.
Thirty-three hits, including nine doubles, two triples and two home runs.
Most important: two victories.
“This is obviously the position you want to be in,” UVa baseball coach Brian O’Connor said Saturday night after his team clobbered Mississippi 13-7 before a raucuous crowd of 4,801 at Davenport Field.
“It’s pretty awesome to play in front of all these fans,” Virginia second baseman Keith Werman said afterward. “Even right now, I’m getting the chills thinking about it.”
The win sent the Wahoos (49-11), seeded No. 5 in the NCAA tournament, to the championship game of the double-elimination regional they’re hosting at Davenport.
Only three teams remain in Charlottesville. No. 4 seed VCU was ousted Saturday afternoon. No. 2 seed Ole Miss (39-23) faces third-seeded St. John’s (41-19) in an elimination game Sunday at 1 p.m.
The winner will take on top-seeded UVa at 6 p.m. Sunday. Should the Cavaliers lose, there would be a winner-take-all rematch Monday night.
Virginia, which has tied a school record for victories, is trying to advance to an NCAA super regional for the second straight year. A season ago, the ‘Hoos won a regional in Irvine, Calif., then beat Ole Miss in a best-of-three super regional in Oxford to earn their first trip to the College World Series.
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco has become something of an authority on UVa baseball, and he was asked Saturday night to compare O’Connor’s current club with its immediate predecessor.
“They’re better,” Bianco said of these Cavaliers. “There’s no doubt … They’re a much more complete team.”
Pitching and defense have long been the cornerstones of O’Connor’s program. Throw in timely hitting, and that’s a formula for sustained success, and O’Connor has guided the Cavaliers to the NCAA tournament in each of his seven seasons as their coach.
Until this year, however, the ‘Hoos had never been so imposing on offense in postseason play.
In their final game at the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., a 12-8 win over Miami, the Cavaliers totaled 12 runs and 15 hits. Six days later, Virginia opened NCAA play with a 15-4 romp over VCU.
Then came the rout of Ole Miss, a game in which six UVa batters had at least two hits, led by designated hitter John Barr, who went 4 for 4 with four RBI. Every UVa batter had at least one hit.
“The last three ball games, we’ve really been locked in and have been swinging the bat aggressively,” O’Connor said. “We haven’t been chasing pitches too much, and our execution on driving in runners in scoring position has been really tremendous.
“To have that kind of offensive output is really tough to sustain. We just happen to be swinging the bats really well right now. And the balls happen to find holes, too. That’s part of this deal this time of the year. You can be talented, but if you don’t have some breaks go your way, it’s going to be tough to advance on.”
Junior right-hander Robert Morey (9-3, 3.60 ERA) will start Sunday for UVa. Can the ‘Hoos win without a sterling performance from the second-team all-ACC selection? Perhaps. Neither Cody Winiarski, who started against VCU, not Danny Hultzen, who started against Ole Miss, dominated, and UVa won handily each time.
Still, O’Connor said, “I don’t think you can sustain what we’re doing offensively. We’ll try. We’ll make every effort to do that, and that will be the plan, but that’s pretty unrealistic to do what we’ve been doing the last three ball games.”
Hultzen went six innings before giving way to freshman right-hander Branden Kline, and the sophomore left-hander from Bethesda, Md., collected the victory to improve to 10-1.
But Hultzen, the ACC pitcher of the year, allowed seven hits and six runs and walked three. It was the fourth straight game in which he fell short of the lofty standard he’s set in his two seasons at UVa.
“It’s not the same Danny Hultzen,” O’Connor acknowledged. “I think everybody knows that, that’s seen this kid pitch, last year and this year. I think his timing’s off. I think he’s rushing at times, and his arm’s dragging behind, and he’s trying to make up for it on the next pitch.
“I think physically he’s in great shape … There’s no issues there at all. I just think ever since the final-exam break he hasn’t been the same, and for whatever reason I think the kid’s timing is off mechanically. Hopefully he gets an opportunity to pitch again and pitch like he’s capable of.”
Even on off night, though, Hultzen helped his team win.
“That’s your job as a starter, to go deep into the game,” he said. “Especially in the regionals, you want to save your bullpen as much as you can. When we have a big lead like that, it’s the pitcher’s job just to kind of eat up innings and just get through those tough parts.”
Hultzen said he’s not sure why he’s been struggling. His fastball worked well against Ole Miss, but his changeup was off the mark.
“For me, that’s really important,” he said, “to able to have that pitch.”
In games in which UVa scores double-digit runs, of course, pitching lapses aren’t as costly. At the end of four innings Saturday, Virginia led 11-3.
“It’s awesome to have all that support,” Hultzen said. “Going out there with a big lead is really comforting. You just go out there and attack the hitters.”
The Rebels scored three runs in the top of the third to pull even at 3-3. Virginia didn’t blink. The Cavaliers scored four runs in the bottom of the third and then added four more in the fourth.
“I think all year, when a team scores a couple runs like that, our job as an offense is to respond as soon as possible, grind out at-bats and get guys on base and do whatever it takes to drive guys in,” Barr said.
“I think it’s really important, and something that makes our team really special is, we do respond in those situations, and it was evident again tonight.”
Kline, the most heralded recruit to enter the UVa program in 2009-10, has been brought along slowly this season, but his value to the team seems to rise with each outing.
Against Ole Miss, Kline surrendered a leadoff home run in the seventh, then struck out the side. He faced five batters in the eighth and three in the ninth and didn’t allow another run.
“In the back half of the season, the guy’s been tremendous for us,” O’Connor said.
WORKING OVERTIME: Werman opened UVa’s fourth with a 12-pitch at-bat that ended with a single to right, which drew a mighty roar from the fans at Davenport.
“He kept throwing right over the plate with two strikes, and I kept battling,” Werman said. “I wasn’t ever going to give up. You never do in this game, at any time. I was just going out there trying to have fun. I was smiling a little bit between pitches. It was a pretty cool experience.”
The 5-7 Werman entered the game batting a team-high .438.
“He’s amazing. He really is,” O’Connor said. “The kid is maybe 140 pounds soaking wet. He’s just a really great college baseball player. Knows the game better than anybody. He’s got a short, compact swing. He understands what pitchers are trying to do to him. He doesn’t try to do too much. He wins you over.
“Tells you how smart I am. I had him in the lineup three times last year until about the 85-, 90-percent mark in the season, and I decided late last year that we just needed to change something and plugged him into the lineup every day, and our team just took off.
“It’s hard not to like him as a fan, for sure. I’m a fan of his.”
MR. JUNE: For the season, senior catcher Franco Valdes is batting only .233. That doesn’t tell the whole story.
For the second straight year, Valdes is on a postseason tear.
In the NCAA tournament last season, he hit .342 with a team-high nine RBI and six extra-base hits. In his two games in the Charlottesville regional, Valdes is 3 for 7 (.429) with three RBI.
“I have no idea,” O’Connor said with a smile Saturday night when asked how to explain Valdes’ annual transformation.
“If there was a pill for it, I’d give it to him earlier in the season, but every year this guy, this time of year, has just been Mr. Clutch for us. He can swing and miss at balls by two feet during the regular season, and this time of year the guy’s just clutch. There’s something about him. His game rises to another level.”
John Hicks, however, is likely to start behind the plate for UVa on Sunday night. Hicks, who played first base in the first two games at the regional, has caught Morey regularly this season.
Hicks is batting .600 in the regional, with five RBI.