By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A little more than a month into his eighth season as UVa’s baseball coach, Brian O’Connor has formed a strong opinion about his latest team.
He likes it. A lot.
“I think it’s easy to say that when you’ve won 19 of the 21 games you’ve played,” O’Connor said Sunday at Davenport Field, “but the character of this team really stands out to me. They never quit. They’ve got a lot of self-confidence in each other. We just gotta get a little bit better at some fundamentals, some execution stuff.
“We have some fundamental lapses at times, but, you know, every team does. It’s part of it. It’s all how about how you respond from those fundamental letdowns. That’s what excites me so much. The response has been great. They haven’t pouted, they haven’t complained. They’ve just come back fighting and done it right the next time.”
By now, no one should be surprised that O’Connor is overseeing another powerhouse at Virginia. His record with the Wahoos, after all, is an astounding 335-120-1, with seven trips to the NCAA tournament, including that one ended in the College World Series.
From a team that in 2010 fell one victory short of a return trip to Omaha, Neb., O’Connor lost five everyday starters — Jarrett Parker, Phil Gosselin, Dan Grovatt, Franco Valdes and Tyler Cannon — as well as standout pitchers Kevin Arico and Robert Morey. Yet the ‘Hoos continue to pile up victories.
Fifth-ranked Virginia (5-1, 19-2) has played two ACC series, winning both. The first was last weekend at Clemson, where the Cavaliers swept the Tigers. UVa hosted No. 4 Florida State this weekend and, after winning Friday night and Saturday afternoon, went into Sunday’s series finale looking to complete another sweep.
At the end of six innings, the ‘Hoos led 7-4. But on a chilly afternoon, the Seminoles battled back. The first two games in the series went to extra innings, UVa winning each one by a single run in the 11th. The third game lasted 10 innings, and this time FSU prevailed, 12-11.
Seminoles catcher Rafael Lopez led off the 10th by homering off freshman Artie Lewicki, the fourth of Virginia’s relievers Sunday, and that proved to be difference in the final game of this remarkable series.
“You don’t have many games that are decided like that, especially three in a weekend,” said junior John Hicks, whose two-run homer in the eighth inning Sunday pulled UVa to 11-9. “It was a fun series to play.”
It’s difficult to imagine two more evenly matched teams. In the series, UVa scored 20 runs, to 19 for FSU. The ‘Noles totaled 28 hits, to 27 for the ‘Hoos. FSU made 3 errors, to 2 for Virginia.
“Two top-5 teams, only the second weekend of the ACC season,” O’Connor said. “Three extra-inning games. How often does that happen?”
Attendance at Sunday’s game was 3,742. The series opener drew 4,268 to Davenport. Game 2, which ended on Jared King’s walk-off home run, drew 3,884 fans.
“It was really an electric environment all weekend long,” O’Connor said. “This is what college baseball should be.”
UVa came to bat in the ninth Sunday trailing 11-9, but FSU (4-2, 16-4) seemed determined to give away the game. The Seminoles committed two errors, and after pinch-hitter Ryan Levine’s grounder scored Steven Proscia, the game was tied 11-11, and pinch-runner Mitchell Shifflett was standing on third.
The Cavaliers could not get Shifflett home, however, and so the game went to extra innings. In the 10th, Proscia came to the plate with Hicks on third and two outs.
On Friday night, Hicks had scored the winning run on Proscia’s hit in the 11th, and Proscia was 3 for 5 in this game.
“You don’t really want anyone else up there [in that situation],” Hicks said.
This battle, though, went to FSU closer Mike McGee. He struck out Proscia to extend the Seminoles’ winning streak in Sunday games to 23.
“Steven’s swinging the bat really well,” O’Connor said. “He’s not judged by that last at-bat. I thought he took some really good swings. McGee threw him a nice slider there to end the game.”
O’Connor wasn’t pleased with his team’s inability to hold the lead Sunday. But he didn’t lose perspective.
“After you sit back and look at it, anytime you can win a series in this league, it’s a good weekend,” O’Connor said. “If you win all your series the entire year, you’re probably going to be the regular-season champion. Obviously I would have liked to have gotten this one. We had chances to win the game. We had the game won and didn’t do the job out of our bullpen. But again, you look back at it, and it is a key series win for us.”
The Seminoles, Hicks noted, are “ranked fourth in the country, and we beat them two out of three, which is huge. It definitely opened some eyes for people who maybe thought that we’d lost a lot from last year.
“Losing today is definitely a tough one to swallow, but we’re going to stick together, and we have some games to play this midweek, and we’ll be ready to go then.”
UVa hosts the Towson Tigers on Tuesday and Wednesday, with a 5 p.m. start each day.
Towson (6-12-1) is coming off a series win over Colonial Athletic Association rival UNC Wilmington.
“You always gotta keep your guard up,” O’Connor said. “Towson’s beat us before here. They historically can really swing the bats. It was a very, very emotional weekend this weekend, and I’ll be challenging our guys to be ready to go on Tuesday and not have a letdown. We get a chance to come out Tuesday and show that we can play good fundamental baseball … That’s the challenge we have in front of us.”