By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As UVa’s baseball coach, Brian O’Connor has experienced two NCAA super regionals. In each one, the home team won the opener, only to lose the next two games and thus fall a victory short of the College World Series.
“The one in 2009 felt a lot better,” O’Connor said Wednesday, eliciting laughter from the reporters on his conference call.
That was the year, of course, when Virginia won the final two games of its super regional at Mississippi to advance to Omaha, Neb., for the first time. A year later, at Davenport Field, the Cavaliers learned how Ole Miss felt in Oxford.
Virginia edged Oklahoma 3-2 in the opener. The Sooners came back to win the second game 10-7 and the deciding game 11-0.
“Oklahoma was hot,” O’Connor recalled this week, “and we just couldn’t hold them down.”
UVa (52-9), the No. 1 national seed in the NCAA tournament, has reached the round of 16 for the third straight season. The Wahoos’ opponent this time is UC Irvine (42-16), and their best-of-three series starts at 1 p.m. Saturday at sold-out Davenport Field.
“What I’ve learned from [the previous super regionals],” O’Connor said, “is that this is the best of the best. You’re in the final 16. There’s no easy ones from here on out, and whether you win the first game or lose the first one, no matter what it is, you gotta win two ball games.
“It’s never like you draw it up. You get to this point, you gotta let the players decide whether you win or lose the ball game from here on out. You’ve done everything you can all year long, and you just gotta go out and let them play. If we play good fundamental baseball and do what we’ve done, then we’ll have a chance to advance on.”
Each team will start its ace on the mound Saturday: junior left-hander Danny Hultzen (11-3, 1.57 ERA) for the Wahoos and junior right-hander Matt Summers (11-2, 1.72) for the Anteaters.
The Seattle Mariners used the No. 2 pick to select Hultzen, who twice has been named ACC pitcher of the year, in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft Monday. The Minnesota Twins drafted Summers, the Big West Conference pitcher of the year, in the fourth round Tuesday.
This will be UC Irvine’s second look at Hultzen. The first didn’t go well for legendary coach Mike Gillespie’s club. In an NCAA regional at Irvine, Hultzen pitched 7.1 innings in the Cavaliers’ 5-0 win over the Anteaters on May 30, 2009.
“It was clear even then, when he was just a freshman, that he was special and was going to be even more special,” Gillespie said Friday afternoon. “He has turned out to be that.”
The Anteaters were seeded No. 1 in that regional, but UVa beat them again the next day to secure a spot in its first super regional.
“It was a pretty crazy weekend,” Hultzen recalled this week. “I guess I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”
O’Connor said this UC Irvine team is similar to the one the Cavaliers faced in 2009. In many ways, the clubs are mirror images of each other.
“The one thing you’ll know for sure about Irvine is they’ll really be able to play the game from a fundamental standpoint,” O’Connor said. “They defend very well. They put pressure on you from an offensive standpoint. They can pitch. Their pitching numbers look very similar to ours. I just think that they’re very well-coached.”
Before coming to UC Irvine, Gillespie went 763-471-2 in 20 seasons at Southern California. The Trojans advanced to the College World Series four times under Gillespie and won the NCAA title in 1998.
UC Irvine was seeded third in last weekend’s NCAA regional at Los Angeles, where UCLA was the top seed. One of the Bruins’ pitchers, Gerrit Cole, was the first pick in this week’s MLB draft. Another, Trevor Bauer, went No. 3. Yet the Anteaters, not the Bruins, made the trip across country to Charlottesville.
“I’m actually really not surprised,” O’Connor said. “UCLA had the two really great pitchers that can dominate a couple of games, but Cal Irvine is a complete team, and they always have been.”
At this time of year, O’Connor said, it’s “the great teams, not the individual players, that advance to this level.”
O’Connor likes to say that baseball is meant to be played every day. The ‘Hoos haven’t played since Sunday night, when they crushed East Carolina 13-1 to complete their romp through the Charlottesville Regional.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had this long a break between games,” sophomore shortstop Chris Taylor said Friday. “It has dragged by a little bit.”
After winning its first nine ACC series, UVa stumbled at the end of the regular season, losing three games to North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Since then, though, the ‘Hoos have won seven straight, including a 4-0 run at the ACC tournament in Durham, N.C.
“I think the North Carolina series maybe somehow, someway did something for us,” O’Connor said. “It’s not that we went down there and we played awful. We had some close ball games and just didn’t pull them out. But to go down there and get swept by a very, very good club, I think, taught our team how fine of a line there is between winning and losing against a great opponent, and what we needed to do moving forward into the ACC tournament and beyond.”
In the Charlottesville Regional, Virginia outscored its three opponents 29-3.
“I think the last couple weeks we’ve been playing our best ball,” Taylor said.
UVa’s Game 2 starter will be junior right-hander Will Roberts (11-1, 1.61) or senior right-hander Tyler Wilson (8-0, 2.34). Roberts went in the MLB’s fifth round to Cleveland and Wilson in the 10th round to Baltimore, which gives UVa’s weekend rotation a résumé that few around the country can match.
“What a great weapon to have all three of those guys pitching so well,” O’Connor said.
Behind the plate is another draft pick, junior John Hicks, whom the Mariners took in the fourth round. Hicks made the All-ACC first team, but he said he deserves no credit for how well Virginia’s pitchers have performed this season.
“They’re all unbelievable,” Hicks said. “They make my job much easier for me. I just put the glove out there, and they usually hit it. It’s a blast catching all of them. All of them are great pitchers with great stuff.”
This is O’Connor’s eighth year in Charlottesville, and he has led the Cavaliers to the NCAA tournament each year. His record is sensational — 368-127-1 — and UVa was the only team to enter this NCAA tourney with fewer than 10 losses.
Still, O’Connor said, Virginia is not “one of these programs in the storied history of college baseball that has been to Omaha 10 times. We’re still trying to prove that we can build a tradition here, and you do that by going out and earning it on weekends like this weekend.”