June 15, 2010

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — As Oklahoma’s players piled on each other near the pitcher’s mound, the Virginia faithful in the stands at Davenport Field raised a familiar chant for one final time this season:

“U-V-A! U-V-A! U-V-A!”

A baseball season unlike any other ended Monday night for the Cavaliers, who were ousted from the NCAA tournament by Oklahoma in the third game of the teams’ best-of-three super regional.

Oklahoma, which had avoided elimination by beating UVa 10-7 on Sunday, won in more convincing fashion Monday night. The Sooners belted four home runs — two of them three-run shots by sophomore slugger Cody Reine — in an 11-0 rout. And now they’re headed to the College World Series for the first time since 1995.

“Obviously, they’ve gotten hot at the right time, which is what it takes to get to Omaha,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said.

“They remind me a lot of our club last year. They were young, and they caught fire at the end of the year.”

The Wahoos advanced to the College World Series in 2009 and, after winning 3-2 Saturday, were a victory from a return trip to Omaha, the dream they had been chasing all season.

But UVa imploded in the final two games of the first super regional held in Charlottesville, surrendering seven homers — four to the 5-9, 217-pound Reine — and making uncharacteristic mistakes in the field. Virginia’s offense wasn’t the problem Sunday, but it disappeared Monday night against Sooners starter Bobby Shore.

The ‘Hoos matched their season low with five hits and were shut out for the first time since a 10-0 loss to ACC rival Miami on April 27, 2008. They didn’t get a runner to second base Monday night.

“I was more frustrated in this ball game probably than I’ve ever been before, and that’s nothing to do with the players,” O’Connor said. “It’s more to do with the game, the fact that we just couldn’t make the pitches we needed to make. The fact that we couldn’t do enough offensively.

“I’d be lying to you if I tell you I wasn’t frustrated. All the players were frustrated, too. If you’re a competitor and you want to win and you have a will to win, you’re going to get frustrated when things don’t happen. Now we have to be men about it and deal with the frustration and the results.”

Some UVa fans departed early, but many remained until the end to pay tribute, for the last time this spring, to a team that produced untold magical moments.

When junior center-fielder Jarrett Parker, a second-round pick in last week’s major-league draft, came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth for what was likely his final at-bat as a Cavalier, he received a standing ovation. The cheers for the ‘Hoos continued long after the Sooners (49-16) recorded the game’s final out.

“Obviously, that was pretty special,” senior shortstop Tyler Cannon said during an emotional press conference.

After reaching the College World Series for the first time, the ‘Hoos were expected to win big again this season, and they didn’t disappoint. UVa (51-14) spent much of the season ranked No. 1 nationally, won the ACC regular-season title and set a school record for victories.

Until the super regional, Virginia hadn’t lost back-to-back games all season.

“I’ll always remember this team as a team that handled the pressure really well,” said O’Connor, whose record in seven seasons at UVa is 316-118-1, with seven trips to the NCAA tourney.

“You might say, ‘Well, geez, you didn’t handle it this weekend,’ but I don’t look at it that way. It’s one weekend, and we didn’t get the job done and they beat us two games in a row and they beat us good. But it wasn’t because our players choked or our players couldn’t handle the pressure. It didn’t have anything to do with it. We ran into a hot team that just had our number.

“I’ll remember a team that continued to change this place. There’s some reason that all these fans are coming out here. I don’t think that it’s just because we’ve won 51 games. I think that’s part of it. I think a big part of it is that these fans can identify with our players. They respect our players for the way they play the game, the way they go about their business, and that’s what I’ll remember: a team that never backed down, a team that handled the pressure of being one of the top-ranked teams in the country in the preseason and throughout the year.

“Did we get it done at the end? No, we didn’t. We didn’t make it to Omaha. But there’s a lot of great teams that didn’t make it to Omaha, either.”

Indeed, of the top eight seeds in the 64-team NCAA tournament — Virginia was No. 5 — only three advanced to the College World Series: No. 1 Arizona State, No. 3 Florida and No. 6 UCLA.

“What it says about college baseball is that there’s a lot of teams that can really compete for the national championship,” O’Connor said. “That even though you might be ranked No. 1 at times during the year, like we were, like Texas was, and other teams, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to make it to Omaha.

“The teams that make it to Omaha are the teams that play hot right at the end of the year and have some breaks go their way.”

Cannon said: “Even though we didn’t make it to Omaha, we won 51 games, we had record crowds throughout the whole season. We had to extend the bleachers out because people wanted to come see us play. Even though we didn’t get to Omaha, we still did a lot of things really well, and that’s the things you’ve got to take out from this season.”

Sophomore left-hander Danny Hultzen, the ACC pitcher of the year, turned in a brilliant performance Saturday, but the Cavaliers’ starters in Games 2 and 3 had their worst outings of the season.

Junior right-hander Robert Morey, a second-team all-ACC pick, lasted only two innings on Sunday. Freshman right-hander Branden Kline, who entered with a 5-0 record, went only 1 ⅔ on Monday before O’Connor brought in Tyler Wilson.

Kline walked two of the first four batters he faced, then gave up a towering home run by Reine, who added a three-run blast off Kevin Arico in the eighth.

“You never want to have men on base when you’re pitching to a hot hitter,” Kline said. “But at the same time, you still want to make pitches that you usually have to make. I left a fastball right down the middle and he took advantage of it, so hats off to him.”

At the edge of the home dugout, UVa players stayed on their feet in the final innings, yelling and clapping for their teammates on the field, not conceding to an opponent with an all-but-insurmountable lead.

“We were still playing hard,” Cannon said. “We wanted to play hard all nine.”

For seniors such as Cannon, catcher Franco Valdes and reliever Neal Davis, this was their final game at Davenport. The Cavaliers may also have to replace several of the juniors who were drafted last week, including Parker and left-fielder Phil Gosselin, the first player in school history to get 100 hits in a season.

“The people that I feel for the most in this situation are our seniors and our draft-eligible players that, depending on what they decide to do, [won’t] get the chance to wear this uniform again, in some of their cases,” O”Connor said. “So I know that’s difficult for them, and it’s difficult for me, seeing some of them go, because they’ve made so many great contributions to our program over the years.”

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