By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Bring on the Anteaters.
After an unbelievably dominant performance in the NCAA baseball regional they hosted at Davenport Field, the Virginia Cavaliers are eager for their next challenge. It will come in the form of UC Irvine, which beat UCLA late Sunday night to capture the Los Angeles regional.
The Anteaters (42-16) were seeded third in that four-team regional; the Bruins, first. And now UC Irvine will travel across the country for a best-of-three super regional at Davenport, where UVa (52-9), the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, destroyed three opponents over the weekend.
The Cavaliers blanked fourth-seeded Navy 6-0 on Friday afternoon, smashed third-seeded St. John’s 10-2 on Saturday night and humbled second-seeded East Carolina 13-1 in the championship game Sunday night.
After the St. John’s game, UVa coach Brian O’Connor told reporters that his team had probably played as well as it could.
“We might have even played better tonight,” O’Connor said Sunday after the Wahoos clinched a spot in an NCAA super regional for the third straight season.
Pirates coach Billy Godwin would not disagree with O’Connor’s assessment.
“For crying out loud, I think Virginia might have beaten the ’27 Yankees tonight,” Godwin said.
Virginia and UC Irvine are among the nine teams that won regionals Sunday. The other seven regionals will be decided Monday. The dates and times of the eight super regionals will be announced late Monday night.
Two years ago, the Cavaliers beat the Anteaters twice in Irvine, Calif., to advance to a super regional for the first time. Before his players start focusing on UC Irvine, though, O’Connor wants them to savor what they accomplished at Davenport.
“I think sometimes people can look at this thing and say you’re the No. 1 overall seed and you should win, but you’re seeing in regionals all across the country that that’s not happening,” O’Connor said. “Top seeds aren’t necessarily winning their regionals.
“You have to play great baseball this time of the year, and these three ball games we’ve played in this regional, we’ve played as good as we’ve played all year. I’m very, very proud of what we just accomplished.”
In 2010, when the ‘Hoos fell one victory short of a return trip to the College World Series, they set a school record with 51 wins. That mark fell Sunday night as Virginia overwhelmed East Carolina (41-21), which had eliminated St. John’s that afternoon.
Twelve of UVa’s 13 runs against ECU came with two outs. In the regional, 25 of Virginia’s 29 runs came with two outs.
“I think special teams do that,” Godwin said.
Special teams have special players. Virginia’s include junior Danny Hultzen, who was named the regional’s most outstanding player and who will be a first-round pick Monday night in the Major League Baseball draft.
“I don’t know how that’s happening so often, but we’ll try to keep it going,” Hultzen said of the Cavaliers’ two-out production.
Hultzen, a left-hander, struck out 12, scattered three hits and walked one in seven innings against St. John’s. He was equally effective at the plate in the regional, going 7 for 11, with five RBI.
Against ECU, Hultzen had two hits, as did teammates John Barr, John Hicks and Jared King. Two Cavaliers — sophomore shortstop Chris Taylor and junior third baseman Steven Proscia — had three hits apiece.
“Very, very balanced offensive team,” O’Connor said. “When you have athletic players like we do that can do some different things — guys that can steal bases, some guys that can hit the ball out of the ballpark, guys that are tough two-strike hitters — good things are going to happen.
“In order to have a really good offensive ball club, it can’t just be the guys in the middle of the order. It’s got to be top to bottom.”
Virginia, the visiting team Sunday night, scored five runs in the second inning and four more in the fourth.
“You can’t ask for anything more than that,” said senior right-hander Tyler Wilson, who went 6.1 innings and improved his record to 8-0.
“The guys came out and really set a tone offensively tonight. Everybody was firing on all cylinders, executing with their at-bats, made every at-bat a quality at-bat.”
Wilson finished with seven strikeouts. The most important came in the bottom of the first, with ECU runners on second and third and two outs.
“It was big to get that strikeout and get a lift and put a zero on the board and give our team some momentum,” Wilson said.
Forgive O’Connor and his pitching coach, Karl Kuhn, if they left the regional pinching themselves. In three games, UVa pitchers struck out 42 batters, walked four and allowed three runs. Only one team has allowed fewer runs in a regional since the NCAA went to a 64-team format in 1999: Virginia, in 2009, at Irvine.
O’Connor, who was a star right-hander at Creighton University, was asked about his pitching staff’s performance in this regional. Junior right-hander Will Roberts opened the weekend with a complete-game gem against Navy in which he struck out 14 and walked none.
“I can’t comprehend it, because I never accomplished it, I can tell you that,” O’Connor said. “I wasn’t that good. I wasn’t as good as the guys we’re running out there. It’s really amazing.
“It’s really remarkable, just the consistency with which we’ve pitched all year long, and then especially this weekend at the most important time.”
In Kuhn, O’Connor said, “I happen to believe that we have the best pitching coach in the country. He’s married to these guys. He’s with them every step of the way … The players do the pitching, but he deserves a lot of credit.”
For the second straight night, the ‘Hoos played in front of a sellout crowd. After drawing 4,749 for Friday’s matinee against Navy, Virginia topped 5,000 on Saturday and Sunday. The crowd of 5,050 for the St. John’s game was a Davenport record, and that was the official attendance Sunday night, too.
“Our fans are amazing,” Wilson said. “I can’t really put into words just how awesome they are.”
The place figures to be packed for the super regional, too. The series with Irvine will begin Friday or Saturday at Davenport.
“It’s an incredible environment,” O’Connor said. “People are starting to liken our environment to an SEC program, which says a lot, because in the SEC they have rabid fans that love their baseball programs.
“We would not be in the position we’re in right now without our fans, because it has a trickle-down effect on everything. There’s recruits that come to our games, and maybe some of them were in the stands this weekend. They see the atmosphere that we have here, and they want to be a part of that.
“So it impacts recruiting. It impacts the positive feeling that the players have about their experience here. It impacts our ability as a program to do things moving forward. If we show our university that we’re going to sell our stadium out and there’s a demand, then there’s always talks and opportunities to continue to expand more to meet the fans’ needs. It’s all great stuff, and it’s a tremendous advantage for us.”