By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Florida clinched first, on Saturday, followed a day later by South Carolina, Florida State, TCU, Arizona State and UCLA.
Two spots remain in the College World Series, which starts this weekend in Omaha, Neb. Both will be filled Monday.
At 1 p.m., Clemson hosts Alabama in the deciding game of their best-of-three NCAA super regional. At 7 p.m., UVa (51-13) meets Oklahoma (48-16) at sold-out Davenport Field.
If the Cavaliers lose, a season in which they smashed the school record for victories will end in agonizing fashion. If they win, they’ll compete on college baseball’s biggest stage for the second straight year.
“Omaha’s on the line,” junior left-fielder Phil Gosselin said Sunday night. “That’s what you ask for. At the beginning of the year, if you said, ‘One game on the line at home to go to Omaha,’ I think everybody would be pretty happy with that.”
Virginia, the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, could have reserved a spot Sunday. But on a suffocatingly humid afternoon at Davenport, a capacity crowd of 4,801 saw the Sooners belt three home runs — two by sophomore Cody Reine — in a 10-7 victory over the Cavaliers.
That evened this super regional at one game apiece. And so the teams will play again Monday night, one week after UVa extended its season by beating St. John’s in the final game of the NCAA regional at Davenport.
“We’re going to play with a lot of confidence tomorrow,” Gosselin said Sunday after a game in which he went 3 for 5, with a three-run homer.
“We’ve been good all year responding to losses, and I don’t see tomorrow being any different. Oklahoma’s going to be tough. They’re not going to just come out and give it to us. We’re going to have to take it from them and earn it.”
In a season that began Feb. 19 with a victory at East Carolina, Virginia has not lost back-to-back games.
“I feel really good about going into tomorrow,” UVa skipper Brian O’Connor said Sunday night. “I really do. How can you not? Every time we’ve needed to get a win, this team has responded like champions.
“They won’t hang their heads, they’ll keep their heads up, they’ll be ready to play. So if we go down tomorrow, it won’t be for the players having a lack of confidence or belief in themselves.”
For the Sooners, who are bidding for their 10th appearance in the College World Series, junior right-hander Bobby Shore (9-4, 4.23 ERA) will start Monday night.
O’Connor will hand the ball to Branden Kline (5-0, 3.14), who started and got the win in the decisive game against St. John’s last Monday. The freshman right-hander also sparkled in late-season starts against ACC rival Miami and Coastal Carolina.
“I have a ton of confidence in Branden Kline,” O’Connor said. “The kid’s pitched his heart out all year long, and so to me it doesn’t matter whether he’s a freshman or a senior. He’s proven to us that he’s very consistent and he’s capable of doing the job.”
O’Connor has similar faith in junior right-hander Robert Morey, whom the Florida Marlins picked in the fifth round of last week’s major-league draft. But Morey, a second-team all-ACC selection, struggled from the start Sunday against the Sooners.
After Virginia scored two runs in the top of the first, Oklahoma put four on the board in the bottom half of the inning, three coming on a homer by the 5-9, 217-pound Reine.
Morey held the Sooners scoreless in the second, but eight of the first nine pitches he threw in the third were balls, and O’Connor had seen enough. In came junior right-hander Cody Winiarski.
“I felt great coming in,” Morey said after his shortest outing of the season. “I prepared all week, had the right mindset. I couldn’t settle in. Probably too much adrenaline, pumped up, and I couldn’t locate the ball.”
After winning his previous five starts, Morey got roughed up by eventual champion Florida State in the ACC tournament at Greensboro, N.C. In his next start, the first of UVa’s two games against St. John’s in the NCAA regional at Davenport, Morey went 6 ⅔ innings. He allowed a pair of two-run home runs but walked only one.
“He didn’t dominate against St. John’s, but I was actually pleased with the St. John’s start,” O’Connor said Sunday night. “He gave us a chance to win the game, and we just didn’t do it at the end.
“Today, I don’t know, he just looked like he didn’t have his command. It looked like the ball was just flying all over the place. He obviously didn’t have his best stuff. I hope he has an opportunity to right the ship next week [in Omaha], but we’ll see about the outcome tomorrow.”
After five innings, Oklahoma led 8-4, but Gosselin’s team-high 11th homer of the season made it a one-run game in the sixth. In the bottom half of the inning, though, freshman Max White hit a two-run home run off Justin Thompson, and the Sooners again had a comfortable cushion.
“That’s a big key to winning college baseball games, momentum,” O’Connor said. “You score, you climb back in the game, you gotta shut ’em out the next inning. Otherwise it’s going to be tough to win.”
In UVa’s 3-2 win Saturday, the Sooners had no extra-base bits.
“I think if Robert Morey — and he would tell you — if he threw like he was capable of, it obviously gives us a much better chance to win,” O’Connor said. “But listen, Oklahoma’s got almost 100 home runs, 100 stolen bases. They’re a very, very good offensive ball club. So it’s unrealistic that we’re just going to shut them down for three games.
“What we have to do, though, is limit their opportunities. You can’t walk hitters. Robert had three walks. You can’t hit batters, things like that. You can’t give them extra chances, because they’re too good of an offensive club to do that, and eventually they’re going to capitalize.”
For the final four innings, O’Connor went with two seldom-used members of his bullpen, Thompson and Neal Davis.
“I felt as the visiting team, we needed to tie the game or take a lead for me to look at the option of Tyler Wilson or Branden Kline,” O’Connor said Sunday night. “I know we have another game to play tomorrow. I think you manage your bullpen differently, [depending on] whether you’re leading or behind. We had the right guys out there in the scenario we were in.”
To inspire his players Sunday, Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway reminded them at lunch of UVa’s feat at Mississippi in 2009. In a super regional in Oxford, the Wahoos lost the first game, then won two straight over Ole Miss to advance to the College World Series for the first time in school history.
“So some of our inspiration has come from very close by,” Golloway said.
The hours figure to drag by for UVa’s players Monday. They’ll have breakfast together, and “I’m sure a lot of them will be up here early, hanging out, watching baseball,” O’Connor said.
“There’s not a whole lot that you can do. They’ve been in this situation quite often. Nerves are part of it. It’s part of the game. You can’t hide from it. A little bit of nervousness is OK, I think.”
A week ago, the ‘Hoos found themselves in another winner-take-all game at Davenport, and they didn’t flinch.
“Against St. John’s,” sophomore John Hicks said Sunday night, “we came back the next day, and you could just tell from the mood in the locker room, we were ready to go, and I’m sure the mood will be like that tomorrow. We’ll definitely be ready.”
LUCK OF THE IRISH: Davenport was the site of seven NCAA regional games June 4-7. In each one, the winner was the team that was designated as the home team.
That streak has continued in the super regional. As the higher seed, UVa was the home team in Game 1. Oklahoma automatically got that distinction Sunday and, naturally, produced a victory.
The home team Monday will be UVa. That was decided in a coin flip Friday. Virginia assistant coach Eddie Smith called “heads” and, as usual, got it right.
Smith, a Notre Dame graduate, won the coin flip for UVa before the deciding game against St. John’s in the regional, and at Ole Miss last year.
“Let’s hope it works in our favor,” O’Connor said. “As the home team, you can manage a little bit differently, there’s no question.”
Golloway, good-naturedly, said: “I’ve seen two games in Charlottesville, and the team in the third-base dugout’s won both, and dadgum, we didn’t win the flip.”
Ultimately, though, that’s probably “the way it should be,” Golloway added. “They’ve been ranked higher than us all year, so we are the visitors. This isn’t home for us. I think the world is as it should be, as far as the home and away, and then we’ll just let some great student-athletes go out there and win their way to Omaha.”
BRAVO: A heralded recruit when he enrolled at UVa, Davis hasn’t had the college career most envisioned for him. But the 6-6, 210-pound left-hander pitched brilliantly against Oklahoma.
Davis, a senior from Baltimore, struck out three, walked none and allowed no hits in 2 ⅓ scoreless innings.
“Even though we lost the game, I’m so happy for Neal,” O’Connor said. “He gave us a chance to win. This kid started off last year in our rotation, suffered an injury, has struggled at times, and [it’s fantastic] for him to go out in that kind of game, in that kind of environment, to shut them down and really give us a chance to win. He did his job, and I’m very, very proud of him.”