April 14, 2011

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE– Thirty-six games into what already ranks as a remarkable season, the UVa baseball team has won 33 times. Even if the Cavaliers win 25 more games, they may not top their most recent victory for sheer drama.

Top-ranked Virginia rallied for three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning Wednesday night to stun Coastal Carolina 8-7 before a crowd of 2,739 at Davenport Field. The game ended when senior John Barr scored on junior Steven Proscia’s two-out single to shallow right-center field, a hit that sent the other Wahoos racing out of the dugout for a frenzied on-field celebration.

“We haven’t panicked all year,” Proscia said. “We like adversity. We handle it well.”

Junior catcher John Hicks said: “We’re never out of a ball game. We’re going to play all 27 outs.”

The tense finish may have added some unwanted color to his head, joked UVa coach Brian O’Connor, but “at least they’re winning gray hairs.”

This is O’Connor’s eighth season at Virginia, and his record coming into this year was a phenomenal 316-118-1, with seven trips to the NCAA tournament and one College World Series appearance. None of his first seven teams, however, was winning at a 92-percent clip through 36 games.

“I tell you, this club really has been amazing through this point in the season,” O’Connor said. “They just have a never-say-die attitude. They always feel like they have a fighting chance.

“You have the kind of record that we have because you have good players that play well, but you also have to have something special about you, and we showed again tonight that we have a special quality about us that separates us.

“It doesn’t surprise me, because of what they’ve shown all year, but it’s truly impressive.”

When these teams met a year ago at Davenport Field, Virginia prevailed 6-3 to end Coastal’s 17-game winning streak. After UVa parlayed six hits — four of them doubles — into five runs in the fourth inning Wednesday night, another victory seemed imminent for O’Connor’s club.

But once Cavaliers starter Cody Winiarski left the game, after four strong innings, the Chanticleers (21-12) came to life. Of the six relievers who followed Winiarski, only freshman Kyle Crockett and sophomore Whit Mayberry did not give up at least one run.

“Uncharacteristically of us, we didn’t do the job out of the bullpen,” O’Connor said. “We’ve pretty much done the job all year out of our pen, and we didn’t do it tonight. That’s what, I think, makes this win all the more special.”

Coastal scored two runs in the fifth to pull to 5-3. The Chanticleers closed to 5-4 in the sixth and then drew even at 5-5 in the seventh.

That was still the score when senior right-fielder David Coleman came to bat for UVa in the eighth, with the bases were loaded and one out. Coleman hit into an inning-ending double play.

“A lot of teams, when you have that opportunity like we had in the eighth to take the lead, and you don’t do it, you hit into a double play, a lot of teams would be just deflated from an offensive standpoint and say, ‘Well, it’s just not our night,’ ” O’Connor said.

Not these ‘Hoos.

“We play with emotion, but we’re not emotional when things don’t go our way,” O’Connor said. “We just keep plugging along and keep fighting and find a way. This game is a game of momentum and emotion, but this team doesn’t get too high and doesn’t get too low. That allows them to persevere through times when things maybe don’t go our way.”

Even after their exceptional closer, sophomore right-hander Branden Kline, gave up two runs in the top of the ninth, the Cavaliers stayed positive.

“It’s a lot easier to come back from two runs than it is from three or four,” Proscia said.

Reed Gragnani started the Cavaliers’ comeback in the ninth, leading off with a single off Coastal right-hander Josh Conway. Colin Harrington followed with a single that moved Gragnani to second, and then Keith Werman walked to load the bases with none out.

When Conway walked the next batter, Chris Taylor, on a full-count pitch, it was 7-6, and the Chanticleers’ composure was shaken. Barr followed with a bloop single to right. Mitchell Shifflett, pinch-running for Harrington, scored easily from third to tie the game, and third-base coach Kevin McMullan waved Werman home.

“With no outs, you take your chance there,” O’Connor said. “And if he doesn’t score, then you still have a runner in scoring position at second base.”

Right-fielder Daniel Bowman’s throw barely beat Werman to the plate, and catcher Tucker Frawley made the tag to extend the game.

“It took a perfect throw to throw him out,” O’Connor said. “If it’s not a perfect throw, the game’s over right there.”

Coastal’s reprieve was short-lived. With Hicks at bat, a wild pitch moved Taylor to third and Barr to second. Hicks grounded back to Conway, who threw out Taylor at home, but Barr advanced to third.

Up came Proscia, who on Tuesday night against Georgetown had gone 3 for 3 and belted a three-run home run. He entered the Coastal game batting .347 with a team-high 37 RBI, and Proscia delivered again.

“The guy’s an RBI machine,” O’Connor said.

Like Hicks, Proscia went 3 for 5 on Wednesday night. He also sparkled in the field.

“He’s really locked in right now,” O’Connor said. “He’s swinging a great bat, and he’s playing really great defense. I mean, how about some of those plays he made on bunts coming in? His defense has been tremendous.”

Of coming to the plate with an opportunity to win the game, Proscia said, “I think everyone looks forward to it. If you don’t look forward to being in that position, then why play the game? It just came down to me tonight, and the next game it could come down to somebody else. I’m just happy I was able to get it done.”

The ‘Hoos, 13-2 in ACC games, return to conference play Friday when they host Duke (4-11, 20-16) at 7 p.m. Junior left-hander Danny Hultzen will pitch for UVa in the series opener, and senior right-hander Tyler Wilson is scheduled to start the second game, Saturday at 4 p.m.

If O’Connor has settled on a Game 3 starter, he didn’t let on Wednesday night. It will be Winiarski or junior right-hander Will Roberts, who has pitched 26 consecutive scoreless innings.

Winiarski has been the Sunday starter but struggled last weekend at Georgia Tech. Against Coastal, though, the senior right-hander scattered three hits and struck out five.

“I thought he did a really great job,” O’Connor said. “It’s kind of like we scripted it. We were hoping we could get four innings out of him. We wanted to keep his pitch count down, just because he threw 60 pitches on Sunday. But the reason that I started him tonight was, he didn’t have a great outing at Georgia Tech, and I wanted to get him right back out there and get him some more innings, get him feeling good about himself against a really good opponent. And so it worked, and hopefully he can catch fire a little bit and continue to pitch good, consistent baseball.”

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