By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For now, at least, the season comes down to one game for the UVa baseball team.
Win Monday night at Davenport Field, and Virginia, the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, will host a best-of-three super regional against Oklahoma next weekend.
And if the Wahoos lose?
One of the greatest seasons in school history — UVa has spent much of the spring ranked No. 1 nationally by Baseball America — will end on a shocking note.
In a regional that opened Friday with four teams, two remain: UVa (49-12) and St. John’s (43-19). The Red Storm rallied to beat the Cavaliers 6-5 on Sunday night to force a winner-take-all rematch in the double-elimination regional. The teams will meet Monday at 6 p.m. at Davenport.
Virginia, which advanced to the College World Series in 2009, has not dropped back-to-back games this season.
“Is there pressure? Sure. I’d be lying to you if I told you that there wasn’t,” Cavaliers coach Brian O’Connor said Sunday night.
“You’re a national seed, you’re hosting a regional, and — this is what I told the team after [the game] — everybody assumes that you’re supposed to just walk through it and win three games. That just is not the way it works. You’re playing a great opponent, and you gotta go out and take it. I think we’ll come out loose and ready to play [Monday] and give it our best shot.”
The most dangerous batter in this regional — St. John’s freshman Jeremy Baltz — staged an unforgettable show Sunday night. Earlier in the day, in an elimination game against Mississippi, the Big East rookie of the year had gone 1 for 3, with an RBI, in the Red Storm’s 20-16 victory.
Against UVa, he ramped up his production. In the fourth inning, Baltz’s two-run home run to right field pulled St. John’s to 5-4. In the eighth, with two outs, after swinging through two sliders from reliever Tyler Wilson, Baltz blasted another two-run homer to make it 6-5. This shot sailed over the wall in left.
“That’s what makes him so special,” St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer said of the 6-3, 190-pound left-fielder. “He’s got power to both fields.”
Baltz’s 24th homer of the season — no Cavalier has more than 10 — came on another Wilson slider and silenced most in the crowd of 4,604. The ‘Hoos went quietly in the ninth, retired in order by left-hander Kevin Kilpatrick, who pitched five-plus innings of shutout relief against a team that in its first two NCAA tournament games had totaled 28 runs and 33 hits.
“I just had to pitch like it was the last time I’d pitch for the year — or forever,” Kilpatrick said.
Baltz, a member of the all-Big East first team, has hit four home runs at Davenport. He’s batting .500 (6 for 12) at the regional.
“I’ve been watching him all weekend,” O’Connor said Sunday night. “He’s got a great swing. He’s got really good bat speed. I mean, we were throwing him some fastballs at 92, 94 miles an hour, and he wasn’t late on them. He had the home run to right field, he had the home run to left field. That kid’s a special player. We gotta find a way to get him out [Monday].”
Virginia fell behind early, on St. John’s first baseman Paul Karmas’ two-run homer off starter Robert Morey in the second. Morey, a junior right-hander, retired the Red Storm in order in the third, however, and then the ‘Hoos put up five runs in the fourth.
Two came on a majestic home run by junior Jarrett Parker, his 10th of the season and 26th of his UVa career, and second baseman Keith Werman added a two-run single later in the inning.
Trailing 5-2 in a hostile environment, St. John’s didn’t panic. And when Baltz homered in the fourth off Morey, who’d walked the leadoff batter, suddenly it was a one-run game.
“The problem is, we let ’em hang around,” O’Connor said. “We had a chance to put them away on the mound when we got the five-spot in the fourth inning.
“We let ’em hang around, and when you have an opportunity to put somebody away, you have to do it, both offensively and on the mound.”
Parker and sophomore John Hicks had two hits apiece for Virginia, but four of the team’s most accomplished veterans — Phil Gosselin, Dan Grovatt, Tyler Cannon and Franco Valdes — were a combined 0 for 15.
“It was a difficult loss, obviously,” O’Connor said. “We had our opportunities to win and didn’t do it. But this is why you go 2-0 in the tournament. You have another opportunity [Monday] to win the championship, and as I told the team after the game, this team has bounced back all year long.”
UVa’s starter in the finale will be junior Cody Winiarski or freshman Branden Kline, O’Connor said. Winiarski started Friday but lasted only four innings in Virginia’s 15-4 rout of VCU. Kline pitched three strong innings of relief Saturday night in a 13-7 win over Ole Miss.
Also available will be closer Kevin Arico, who has yet to pitch in the regional, and Wilson, who has appeared in two games.
“I think we’re going to be fine,” Morey said. “We’ve bounced back all year after tough losses, and this is a new season. We have one opponent ahead of us, one game to look forward to, and that’s [Monday].”
O’Connor said he’s not worried about his team’s mindset.
“We’re over 60 games into the season,” he said. “I think I know our players, I know they’re tough kids, they’re very resilient. I’ve got to have complete confidence that they’re going to come out [Monday] with everything we have. They haven’t shown me anything this year to feel any differently.”
Near the end of his press conference Sunday night, O’Connor was asked about his strategy against Baltz, who’s now hitting .398 for the season. When Baltz came to the plate, Matt Wessinger, who had singled with one out, was on first.
“Well, I can tell you this: I would have never pitched around him, and I would have never walked him or tried to do anything like that,” O’Connor said.
“That guy’s the winning run. Sure he’s a threat to hit it out of the ballpark, but if he hits the ball out of the ballpark, he hits the ball out of the ballpark. The guy’s human. The guy’s not going to hit every ball out of the park. So you’ve got to try to make your pitches. Unfortunately, Tyler just didn’t get the ball exactly where he needed to, and [Baltz] made him pay for it.”