By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A year ago, in its first NCAA super regional, UVa’s baseball team played three games at a stadium that seats about 10,000. The stands were full and the atmosphere electric, with the overwhelming majority of fans in Oxford, Miss., rooting against the Cavaliers.
That didn’t stop Virginia from beating Mississippi to advance to the College World Series. So as the Wahoos (50-12) head into their super regional with Oklahoma (47-15) this weekend, they know that playing at home in this round is no guarantee of victory.
“Other than I get to see my kids every day, I don’t know that it’s any different,” UVa coach Brian O’Connor said Friday. “We obviously will have 95 percent of the crowd behind us, and our players get to sleep in their own beds, but outside of that, when you get to this point, with the top 16 teams in the country, anyone [can win].
“History has shown us that about five out of eight teams that host [super regionals] advance every year. So that’s not that great of a percentage to really bank on anything. We know how good Oklahoma is, and we know we gotta go out and play good fundamental baseball to win, and that’s what it’s going to come down to.”
The best-of-three series begins Saturday at 3 p.m. at sold-out Davenport Field, whose capacity this postseason is 4,801. Sophomore Danny Hultzen, the ACC pitcher of the year, will start for Virginia, which entered the 64-team NCAA tournament as the No. 5 seed. UVa’s Game 2 starter will be junior Robert Morey, a second-team all-ACC selection.
If a third game is necessary, UVa’s options for a starter Monday are likely to include freshman Branden Kline and junior Cody Winiarski
“Everything’s good, everybody’s healthy, everybody’s available,” O’Connor said of his pitching staff.
Both teams played at home on the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend. In Charlottesville, UVa went 3-1 to win a double-elimination regional that also included VCU, Ole Miss and St. John’s. The ‘Hoos beat each of those teams.
In Norman, Oklahoma went 3-0 to advance to the super regional, beating Oral Roberts once and North Carolina twice.
“They’re very similar to us,” O’Connor said of the Sooners. “They’ve got very good pitching. It looks like they play really, really sound defense. Overall it looks like a very fundamental ball club. They’re going to move runners over and play good solid fundamental baseball, but they also have close to a hundred home runs.
“So obviously they do the little things it takes to put themselves in position to win games, but it also looks like they can hit the three-run home run, too.”
Oklahoma, ranked No. 11 nationally in the most recent Baseball America poll, has hit 93 homers this season.
The top-ranked Cavaliers, with 58, have hit considerably fewer than the Sooners. Overall, though, UVa is batting .334, so offense hasn’t been a problem for O’Connor’s club.
The Wahoos’ pitching has been superb this season, too, but their ace has not been as dominant lately as he was earlier in the year.
A week ago, Hultzen started against Ole Miss and earned the victory, raising his record to 10-1. But in his six innings, the 6-3 left-hander allowed seven hits, surrendered six runs and walked three. That was the fourth consecutive game in which Hultzen struggled, but the ‘Hoos still won 13-7.
“The fact is, everyone’s saying he isn’t throwing the ball or he hasn’t pitched as well, but the guy is finding victory,” Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway said Friday at Davenport.
“This time of year it’s about finding victory. Go out there and find a way to help your team win, and he has done exactly that. For a No. 1 guy, for a Friday night guy, for an ace, whichever you want to call him, he’s doing his job.”
Oklahoma, from the imperiled Big 12, is trying to advance to the College World Series for the 10th time. The Sooners were NCAA champions in 1951 and 1994.
UVa’s trip to Omaha, Neb., in 2009 was the program’s first. It came in the Cavaliers’ sixth season under O’Connor, an Omaha native who played in the College World Series as a pitcher at Creighton.
The ‘Hoos have spent much of this season ranked No. 1 nationally, and now they’re tantalizingly close to a return engagement in Omaha.
“Obviously it’s hard not to think about, being only two wins away,” shortstop Tyler Cannon said Friday afternoon.
Cannon is among the UVa players whose final games at Davenport will come in the super regional. He and catcher Franco Valdes are the only seniors who play regularly, but several UVa juniors who were selected in last week’s Major League Baseball draft are expected to turn pro this year.
“It’s going to be a little bit emotional for us,” Valdes said.
Cannon said: “To be honest, it still seems like it’s not really my [final series at Davenport]. I don’t think it’ll really hit me until after the season’s over. But it’s been awesome to be at Virginia, and hopefully the season won’t end here at home.
“It’d be wonderful to go out, beat Oklahoma in the super regionals and go out to Omaha for my last year and hopefully compete for a national championship.”
In Oxford last year, the ‘Hoos dropped the opener of the super regional, then stunned the Rebels by winning two straight games to advance to Omaha. Virtually all of the key players from that UVa team are still in the program, and the experience gained at Ole Miss, Valdes said, was invaluable.
“It’s probably the key thing, I feel like,” Valdes said. “I feel like being able to go somewhere else and be on the road, in front of 10,000 fans, at an SEC field, and being able to come out with a victory really will help us this weekend to be able to come out here at home and do something similar.”
O’Connor marveled Tuesday about the resilience his players showed in the regional. After giving up a late lead and losing Sunday to St. John’s, Virginia came back a day later and eliminated the Red Storm.
“The mood and the attitude in our dugout on Monday was like something that I’ve never been a part of here,” O’Connor said. “The enthusiasm, the team unity, you could just feel it in our dugout that they were not going to be denied.
“A guy like Franco Valdes, what he did this past weekend is remarkable. He’s a guy that’s hitting [around] .200, and the guy’s coming up with clutch hit after clutch hit, he’s blocking every ball in the dirt, he’s throwing every guy out. The guy’s a gamer, the guy’s a winner, and that’s what it’s about, seeing players rise to the occasion and having an unbelievable experience.”