By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The College World Series begins Saturday in Omaha, Neb., and the eight-team field is nearly set.
Will UVa, the No. 1 national seed when the NCAA baseball tournament began this month with 64 teams, be among those performing on the college game’s biggest stage?
We’ll find out Monday, starting at 4 p.m., when Virginia (53-10) and UC Irvine (43-17) meet in the final game of their best-of-three NCAA super regional at sold-out Davenport Field. The Anteaters forced a third game (which ESPN2 will televise) by rallying to win 6-4 on Sunday.
UVa, designated the visiting team Sunday, will be back in the home dugout Monday. Junior right-hander Will Roberts (11-1, 1.61 ERA) will start for the Cavaliers, who are trying to advance to Omaha for the second time in three seasons.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence handing the ball to Will Roberts,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said Sunday night.
The Wahoos’ starting pitching has been strong in this super regional. UVa’s bullpen struggled Sunday, though, allowing the Anteaters to pull out a game that began at 1:05 p.m. and, because of bad weather, ended seven hours and four minutes later.
UC Irvine stopped ACC champion Virginia’s eight-game winning streak, but O’Connor said his team remains confident.
“Everything you want is right out in front of you tomorrow, and that’s what I told the players,” O’Connor said Sunday night. “They’ll turn the page, and they’ll be ready to go.”
The first two teams to clinch spots in Omaha were North Carolina and Vanderbilt. Four more followed Sunday: Florida, Texas, California and defending NCAA champion South Carolina.
That leaves two super regionals to be decided Monday: UVa-UC Irvine and Florida State-Texas A&M (7 p.m. in Tallahassee).
“It’s do or die,” UC Irvine left-fielder Drew Hillman said.
If not for Hillman, his team’s season might well be over. In the first game of the super regional, Virginia won 6-0, and the Anteaters still had not scored a run at Davenport Field through five innings Sunday.
In the sixth, though, Hillman crushed a slider from UVa starter Tyler Wilson over the bleachers in left field to make it 3-1. In the eighth, Hillman had a one-out double and later scored the run that pulled the Anteaters even at 4-4.
“Drew Hillman clearly gave us a real lift and a real spark, with two different at-bats, as it turns out, but certainly the first one changed the mentality for us in the dugout,” UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said. “Everybody got electrified when that happened.”
Wilson escaped the sixth inning with no further damage, after which O’Connor turned to a bullpen that for most of the season has shined. This time, however, Justin Thompson and closer Branden Kline faltered.
Thompson, a junior right-hander, allowed three hits and three runs before giving way to Kline. A sophomore right-hander, Kline entered with one out in the bottom of the eighth and Virginia leading 4-3.
Kline’s first pitch hit Jordan Fox on the elbow, giving UC Irvine runners on first and second. The next batter, Christian Ramirez, flied out, but Jordan Leyland followed with a two-run double, and then Tommy Reyes singled home Leyland.
In its first four games in the NCAA tournament, UVa had outscored its opponents (Navy, St. John’s, East Carolina and UC Irvine) 35-3. Not since the ACC tournament, then, had the Cavaliers’ relievers pitched in tight games.
“It’s in the back of your mind,” O’Connor said Sunday night. “I’d be kidding if I said it wasn’t. But there’s nothing we can do about that. Those guys did get some good work in the conference tournament. We can’t control that last week we scored a lot of runs and outscored our opponents pretty good.
“I got Thompson and Kline in today in a pressure situation, and I’m sure they’ll be given opportunities again tomorrow, and hopefully they’ll be a little bit better tomorrow because of the situation that they were in today.”
Kline took the loss, his first of the season.
“Just gotta learn from your mistakes and bounce back tomorrow with confidence and act like today never happened,” he said.
The opener of the super regional also was interrupted by rain and lightning. But that delay, which started in the fourth inning, lasted only 84 minutes Saturday. The storm that hammered Davenport after 4½ innings Sunday was more powerful, and when it became clear the game would not resume until that evening, if at all, the Anteaters bused back to their hotel.
Virginia led 3-0 when play was suspended, and Wilson had retired five batters in a row.
Hillman and Gillespie said the delay helped the Anteaters. “It kind of seemed like halftime at a basketball game,” Hillman said.
O’Connor declined to use the delay as an excuse for his team’s loss.
“It’s the same for both teams, and we just didn’t do enough,” he said. “It’s pretty simple. We didn’t make some pitches, and they’re good hitters, and they made us pay for it.”
When the game resumed, Wilson returned for the Cavaliers. Gillespie replaced his starter, Matt Whitehouse, with freshman right-hander Andrew Thurman, who pitched brilliantly.
Junior right-hander Crosby Slaught (7-2, 3.97) is expected to start Monday for UC Irvine. Gillespie had hoped to save Thurman for that role, but a third game might not have been necessary without Thurman’s gem Sunday.
In four innings, he scattered three hits, struck out four and allowed one run.
“Irvine deserved to win the ball game tonight,” O’Connor said. “They did a great job of executing offensively in the back half of the game. The Thurman kid came in and pitched a great game for them. Obviously that was a great move on their part. He had a very, very good change-up and kept our hitters off balance.”
Wilson’s line was impressive too: six strikeouts in five innings, with only one walk and one run allowed.
“That kid has given us everything,” O’Connor said. “After a four-hour rain delay. I was really hoping that we’d get one inning out of him … That’s a long delay for somebody to sit through. I was happy to see him give us two innings after the delay. We’ve been going to Thompson and Kline all year long in that scenario, Thompson for a couple innings, Kline for one, or vice versa. It just didn’t work out this time.”
A seventh-inning error by senior center-fielder Kenny Swab didn’t help, either. With one out and Ramirez on first, Reyes singled to right-center. The ball bounced through Swab’s legs, and Ramirez came around to make it 3-2. Ronnie Shaeffer followed with an RBI single, and suddenly it was 3-3.
“The field conditions were fine,” Swab said. “I just didn’t make a play on the ball. I didn’t keep it in front of me … It just went through me, and you can’t let that happen.”
In the eighth, after John Hicks and Steven Proscia flied out, UVa first baseman Jared King singled to left. Swab followed with a double to right, and King, who was running on the pitch, scored to put the ‘Hoos back in front, 4-3.
That left UVa six outs from a trip to Omaha, but the Anteaters refused to go quietly.
“I said coming into this series that Irvine was hitting .300 for a reason,” O’Connor said. “They’re not going to be in awe of our guys by any means. You have to execute your pitches against them to have a chance to get them out, and for most of the game, we did. We didn’t at the end of the game.”
And so the Cavaliers find themselves facing a challenge with which they’re becoming familiar: the winner-take-all game of a super regional.
In 2009, Virginia won the finale at Ole Miss to advance to the College World Series for the first time in school history. A year ago, against Oklahoma, UVa won the opener but lost the next two games at Davenport. The Sooners romped 11-0 in the deciding game and celebrated afterward with a dogpile on the Cavaliers’ field.
“Every season’s a new season,” O’Connor said Sunday night. “What happened last year doesn’t really have anything to do with this season. Last season we ran into a hot team in Oklahoma, and they put it to us in Game 3. I know that sticks in our guys’ side, and I know they’ll be excited to come out and compete tomorrow, and we’ll see what happens.”