By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Some 2,500 miles from home, UC Irvine ran into a baseball team that’s been playing at an astonishingly high level since the end of the regular season. There was no dropoff from UVa on Saturday afternoon.
In the opener of their best-of-three NCAA super regional at Davenport Field, Virginia blanked the Anteaters 6-0 before a sellout crowd of 5,050. More impressive, the Cavaliers did it on a day when their ace, two-time ACC pitcher of the year Danny Hultzen, was not at his best.
In its four games in the NCAA tournament, ACC champion UVa has outscored its opponents 35-3.
“That was a really, really good team playing really, really well,” Anteaters coach Mike Gillespie said. “It really wasn’t much of a contest. They were as advertised. I think our best chance was if lightning had blown up the stadium.”
Nothing of the sort occurred Saturday, though there was a rain delay that halted the game in the top of the fourth inning and lasted 84 minutes. Hultzen, a junior left-hander, returned to the mound when play resumed and pitched into the sixth inning, when Cody Winiarski took over with one out and runners on first and second.
Winiarski got the first batter he faced to hit into an inning-ending double play. The senior right-hander went the rest of way for UVa (53-9), the No. 1 national seed in the NCAA tourney, and allowed only one hit in his 3.2 innings.
“That was awesome,” Hultzen said. “He stepped up big time. Cody did a great job just battling their hitters and throwing strikes so we didn’t have to bring in our other guys.”
Of Winiarski, O’Connor said, “I had extreme confidence when I brought him into the game that he could do the job for us. I didn’t know whether he’d finish the game or not, but I knew he’d give us a great chance to win.
“It was key for us, no question. I knew when I sent Hultzen back out there in the fourth inning, after the rain delay, that I was not going to stick with him very long.”
Hultzen, whom the Seattle Mariners selected with the No. 2 pick Monday night in the Major League Baseball draft, got the win to improve to 13-2 this season. Senior right-hander Tyler Wilson (8-0, 2.34 ERA) will start Sunday at 1 p.m. for the Wahoos in a game that could send them to Omaha, Neb., home of the College World Series, for the second time in three seasons.
“We’re not going to put too much pressure on ourselves,” said Hultzen, who will be UVa’s designated hitter Sunday. “We’re just going to take it as another game, as we have all year.”
Two years ago, in an NCAA regional at Irvine, Hultzen sparkled in a 5-0 win over the Anteaters. The first game of this super regional didn’t go as well for Hultzen, who said, “I just didn’t have it.” Still, even on an off day, he allowed only three hits and surrendered no runs.
Hultzen hit the game’s first batter, D.J. Crumlich, then walked Sean Madigan on four pitches. A sacrifice bunt moved Madigan to second and Crumlich to third, and the Anteaters (42-17) appeared poised to strike first. But a base-running blunder allowed the Cavaliers to turn a momentum-changing double play.
Third baseman Steven Proscia fielded a grounder and threw to first baseman Jared King for the second out. King, after spotting Madigan off the bag, fired the ball to second baseman Keith Werman. Madigan made it back in time, but Werman alertly threw home to catcher John Hicks, who tagged Crumlich for the third out.
“That was awesome,” Hultzen said. “Getting those double plays, getting two outs in one pitch and ending those innings was crucial.”
Werman, a junior, played a pivotal role in each of UVa’s two other double plays, too.
“I’ve said this many times: Keith Werman is a baseball player,” O’Connor said. “He might be 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds soaking wet, but he knows the game of baseball. That heads-up play that he made in the first inning, who knows what happens if they score that run? All of the sudden we’re back on our heels, and we kind of got momentum on our side after Danny had not such a good start in the first inning.”
Coming into the super regional, Hultzen had walked only 17 batters in 103.1 innings this season. He walked three in the first three innings Saturday.
“He was a little bit off today,” O’Connor said. “That’s obvious to anybody that’s seen him pitch, but he showed what he was made of today. He did not have his best stuff, and that’s no disrespect to Irvine, but he still won the ball game. And that’s pretty special: to not have your best stuff and still win in a super regional.”
Hultzen said: “It’s my job to just give the team a chance to win. It’s not necessarily my job to throw a complete-game shutout or throw a no-hitter or anything like that. It’s my job to put our team in position to win, and with our defense and the way our offense is swinging the bats, luckily we were able to do that.”
In the third, Hicks’ infield single drove home Werman with the game’s first run. Two batters later, Hultzen singled in sophomore Chris Taylor to make it 2-0.
In the sixth, with two runners on, King (3 for 4) blew the game open with one swing. Anteaters starter Matt Summers, a fourth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins, threw a change-up that King crushed to deep left field.
“I was hoping it would hook foul,” Summers said later.
UC Irvine, the first team from California to play at Davenport, had no such luck. For King, who has lost both of his parents to cancer, the home run was only the second of his college career. The first was a walk-off home March 19 in the bottom of the 11th inning against visiting Florida State.
“I think the other one was sentimental, selfishly, for me,” King said, “but this one for our team was obviously more important.”
The Cavaliers are batting .307 this season, but have hit only 23 home runs. The timing of those shots, however, has often been impeccable. In the ACC championship game at Durham, N.C., Virginia homered three times in a 7-2 win over Florida State.
“When we’ve hit them, they’ve been important ones, and that’s what you love to see,” O’Connor said. “There’s home-run hitters that will hit them when they don’t count, and there’s guys that hit them when they really matter.”
Virginia totaled 12 hits off five UCI pitchers. Seven Cavaliers had at least one hit Saturday.
Under O’Connor, whose record in eight seasons is 369-127-1, the ‘Hoos have always been renowned for their pitching and defense. There’s much more to his latest club, though.
“The offensive numbers jump out at you also,” Gillespie said. “It’s a real, real good team, and a very complete team.”
“I think as far as from an offensive standpoint, this is as good as we’ve been productivity-wise, throughout the entire lineup,” he said. “This has been a club all year long that has picked each other up. I don’t think you can sit there and point to, say, our 3- and 4-hole hitters that carry us. It’s different players every time that rise to the occasion, and that’s why you call it a team.”
King said: “I was just the guy today that got that hit. It was my turn today.”