By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — With the sellout crowd on its feet, waiting to exhale, waiting to erupt in cheers, UVa junior Phil Gosselin settled under the fly ball in left field. He closed his glove around it, and the celebration broke out at Davenport Field.
The Wahoos had made history again.
A season ago, Virginia’s baseball team won an NCAA regional (at Irvine, Calif.), won a super regional (at Oxford, Miss.) and played in the College World Series — all firsts for a program that dates to 1889.
After setbacks at Davenport in 2004, ’06 and ’07, the ‘Hoos finally broke through Monday night, winning an NCAA regional at home for the first time and, in the process, securing a school-record 50th victory.
“Unbelievable win,” UVa coach Brian O’Connor said after his team held off St. John’s 5-3 in a tense game witnessed by 4,801 fans.
Much had been made of Virginia’s struggles in previous regionals at Davenport, “but I gotta tell you, I never really thought about it,” O’Connor said.
“We can’t put added pressure on ourselves because we’re hosting. We’ve got a really great club. I think our club is capable of winning whether we play in Charlottesville or the North Pole.”
That said, the Cavaliers (50-12) are 33-5 at Davenport this season, and there’s no place O’Connor would rather play — other than Omaha, Neb., of course.
Average attendance at the Charlottesville regional was 4,154. Only three other sites — Austin, Texas; Fayetteville, Ark., and Columbia, S.C. — averaged more fans at their regionals.
“I’ll tell you why it’s great that we won it at home,” O’Connor said. “It’s great that we won it at home because our fans deserve this. Our fans have come out and supported this team all year long, and that was obviously evident this week. What a great opportunity for our fans to see great winning baseball, to cheer their team on and now to have an opportunity to watch us again.”
Next up for UVa, the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, is a super regional against Oklahoma (47-15) at Davenport. The best-of-three series starts Saturday afternoon. The winner advances to the College World Series.
“I can’t tell you a whole lot about [the Sooners], other than I knew that they were at the top of the Big 12 this year, which obviously has great baseball,” O’Connor said Monday night. “They obviously face great arms when they play the likes of Texas and Texas A&M and teams like that. I’m sure it’ll be another battle, and we’ll go start looking at them [Tuesday].”
The deciding game at Davenport came 24 hours after UVa and St. John’s met for the first time in the double-elimination regional. In that game, the Red Storm extended its season by rallying for a 6-5 victory. The big story Sunday night was the big bat of freshman Jeremy Baltz, who hit a pair of two-run home runs, the second an eighth-inning blast that put the St. John’s ahead for good.
Had the Cavaliers dropped the rematch, the loss would have overshadowed, at least initially, the team’s feats this spring. Virginia won the ACC’s regular-season title and has spent much of the season ranked No. 1 nationally by Baseball America.
“But I told the team last night, and I told the team before we went out for batting practice today, that they’ve got something special about them that they’ve had all year,” O’Connor said. “They’ve been very, very resilient, and obviously they’re talented, and they performed in the clutch today.”
St. John’s (43-20) outhit the ‘Hoos 11-9, limiting them to singles Monday night. But Virginia’s pitching and defense sparkled, as they have so often during O’Connor’s seven seasons in Charlottesville.
It began with freshman right-hander Branden Kline, who’d pitched three innings of relief Saturday night in a win over Mississippi. Kline started Monday night and worked into the sixth inning before giving way to reliever Kevin Arico.
“The job that Branden Kline did in that environment, on that stage, facing elimination, was just incredible,” O’Connor said.
Arico said: “You would never guess the kid was a freshman tonight.”
Kline (5-0) started to tire in the sixth, not surprisingly, and that raised the Red Storm’s hopes for a big inning. After Kline retired the leadoff batter, he gave up two singles and then walked Joe Panik to load the bases.
That brought up Baltz, the Big East rookie of the year, and O’Connor turned to Arico, an all-ACC closer. Before Monday night, Arico had never pitched three innings in a college game, and he usually enters in the eighth or ninth, but O’Connor had texted him late Sunday with this message: Be prepared for anything.
“Technology’s amazing these days,” O’Connor said with a smile, “and I just told him, ‘Hey, you’re our guy, and you need to be ready at any point in the game for an extended outing.’
“The plan was, if we got into a difficult situation where the game potentially could be on the line, anywhere after the fifth inning, that we were going to go to him.”
With Baltz at the plate, it was time for Arico, O’Connor said, “and he was either going to do it or he wasn’t.”
St. John’s scored two runs in the sixth to pull to 4-3, but the damage could have been worse. Baltz hit into a fielder’s choice and later was thrown out by right-fielder Dan Grovatt trying to go from first to third on Jimmy Parque’s single.
“Oh, my,” O’Connor said, shaking his head. “Danny Grovatt showed on that throw why we pitched him this year. The guy’s got a great arm, and that was a huge out … One of the biggest plays in the game, I think.”
In the seventh, Virginia loaded the bases with none out but could get only one run across. Sophomore Keith Werman raced home from third to score on Jarrett Parker’s sacrifice fly to shallow left.
Werman had scored in the second on Steven Proscia‘s sacrifice fly to shallow right. In both cases the play at the plate was close.
“That’s the way we play,” Werman said. “We play aggressive and we go after it. Seeing a fly ball in shallow right-center or left-center, they gotta make the catch and they gotta make a great throw, and we’re going to challenge them.”
Arico faced Baltz for a second time in the eighth, with two outs and a runner on first. Baltz singled, moving Matt Wessinger to third, but Arico then fanned Parque to end the inning.
In the ninth, Arico got Greg Hopkins to ground out and then, with fans chanting, “UVa! UVa!” struck out Paul Karmas, who had homered in the third.
Sean O’Hare followed with a single, but there was no dramatic rally for the Red Storm this time. Arico retired pinch-hitter Josh Daniel on the fly to left, and the party began at Davenport.
In a career-long 3 ⅔ innings, Arico allowed no runs and scattered five hits. He struck out two and tormented St. John’s throughout with his slider.
“The bottom line, the kid can pitch,” Red Storm coach Ed Blankmeyer said. “You throw those balls in that spot, I don’t care who you are, you’re not going to hit him, you’re not going to get real good swings. He has to make some mistakes, and he really didn’t make too many mistakes.”
O’Connor brought Arico “in at the right time,” Blankmeyer said. “The ninth inning doesn’t mean a closer has to come in. It’s when the game is on the line when you bring the closer in, and he brought him in at the right time. I thought it was a great coaching move.”
And so the Cavaliers, who have not lost back-to-back games this season, find themselves two victories away from another trip to Omaha. Most of the players who led UVa to the College World Series in 2009 are still in the lineup, but it’s not the same team, according to O’Connor.
“This team is better than last year’s team,” he said emphatically Monday night. “Last year’s team at the end of the year started to understand what it really took to win championships, and this year’s team has had that all year long. There’s been a presence about them in the locker room, on the practice field, on the game field.
“I’ve said this many times over the last month or so: This group just doesn’t panic. They’re a bunch of confident young men that know what it takes.
“Now, will they get it done all the time? No, they’re not going to get it done all the time, but they believe in each other, and it’s a special group.”