By Jeff White
In the stands and on the concourse, barely able to believe the drama they had just witnessed, fans stood and cheered, their arms and voices raised in triumph, tears of joy in the eyes of some.
“U-V-A! U-V-A! U-V-A!”
That chant broke out at Davenport Field, to be followed by another: “Omaha! Omaha! Omaha!” The dogpile broke up, but none of the players moved toward the locker room.
Nobody wanted this party to end. Photographers snapped shot after shot. As “All I Do Is Win” played over the P.A. system, players ran to the foot of the left-field bleachers, where they leaped to exchange high-fives with fans, and then repeated that scene in right field. The children of O’Connor, McMullan and pitching coach Karl Kuhn joined their fathers on the field for hugs and kisses.
On and on it went Monday night, to the delight of the UVa fans who packed the stadium for the third consecutive day of this NCAA super regional. The only thing more remarkable than the celebration at Davenport, in fact, was the game that preceded it.
“Absolutely the most thrilling, greatest win in UVa baseball history,” O’Connor said. “You couldn’t have written a script better than this.”
In the final game of this best-of-three series, the Wahoos scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to stun UC Irvine, 3-2, and clinch a spot in the College World Series for the second time in three seasons.
“Wow!” O’Connor said to open his postgame press conference. “I guess you can never doubt this club.”
The comeback started at the last possible moment, after Anteaters ace Matt Summers retired the first two batters he faced in the ninth and got two strikes on the third, senior right-fielder David Coleman.
“Obviously going up there and thinking that that could be my last at-bat [as a Cavalier], it’s tough,” Coleman said, “but I was able to calm myself down and just treat it like any other at-bat and battle.”
With two strikes on Coleman, O’Connor acknowledged later, the situation “was as bad as it gets.”
A year earlier, on the same field, his team had lost the deciding game of a super regional with Oklahoma. In the home dugout Monday night, it occurred to O’Connor that he might again have to help his players deal with the heartbreak of falling a victory short of Omaha, Neb.
“Thoughts creep in your head like that, but you gotta have hope and you gotta believe that something’s going to happen,” O’Connor said. “You’re not human if you don’t start thinking, ‘How am I going to handle this?’ But this team proved to be something special.”
On a 1-2 pitch from Summers, Coleman singled up the middle. In came freshman Mitchell Shifflett, the fastest Cavalier, as a pinch-runner. To the plate came first baseman Jared King, who had homered off Summers in the first game of this series, a 6-0 win for the Cavaliers.
This at-bat, given the stakes, was equally dramatic. King smacked a 1-1 pitch back at the pitcher. The ball ricocheted off Summers’ left ankle, and the ‘Eaters had no play. Suddenly there were runners on first and second, and the crowd sensed that an improbable finish might be unfolding. So did the home team.
“There’s no question, when you play a great opponent like we played this weekend, that a break has to go your way at some point to win the thing,” O’Connor said. “And maybe that was our break.”
Summers, in a meeting with UCI coach Mike Gillespie, was adamant that his ankle and his arm were fine, and so the junior right-hander stayed in the game. But he walked the next batter, pinch-hitter Reed Gragnani, on four pitches, none of which was close to a strike. And that brought up sophomore shortstop Chris Taylor, who was 5 for 11 in the series.
“He wore us out all weekend, quite frankly,” Gillespie said. “There’s not a lot of guys on that team that we would like to have seen come up in that situation — he, perhaps, maybe least of all.”
In the top of the ninth, a throw from catcher John Hicks had glanced off Taylor’s glove at second base, allowing Sean Madigan to advance to third. Madigan eventually scored to put the Anteaters up 2-1.
“I really think I should have caught that ball,” Taylor said. “I felt real bad about it. I’m just glad I got a chance to redeem myself.”
Before Taylor’s at-bat, O’Connor inserted another speedster, Corey Hunt, a graduate of nearby Monticello High School, to run for King at second. If the Cavaliers scored only one run in the ninth, O’Connor knew, he would have to get creative with his defensive lineup in the 10th, but that was a chance he was willing to take.
“I just decided that you got Taylor up and you got a chance to win it,” O’Connor said, “and hopefully we’d find a hole and win it, and we did.”
Taylor took the first pitch from Summers, a 92-mph fastball, for a strike. The second pitch was another fastball. This one Taylor drilled up the middle and through the infield. Game over. Shifflett raced home to make it 2-2, and by the time Hunt rounded third, his teammates were charging out of the dugout to mob him at the plate.
“I’m speechless right now,” said Taylor, who’s from Virginia Beach. “This is a dream come true. A player can only dream of moments like this. And all year long our team has always had that never-quit attitude. We were down to the last strike, and Dave came up with the clutch hit. I’m so proud of my teammates.”
Virginia (54-10), the No. 1 national seed when the NCAA tournament began early this month with 64 teams, is one of eight left. UVa’s CWS opener is Sunday at 2 p.m. (Eastern) against California in Omaha.
“As a coach and a player, you put so much into this thing to have the opportunity that you have in front of you, and you just want to make the most of it, because for those guys that wear our uniform, this is their chance to go to what college baseball players consider the promised land,” O’Connor said.
“There’s been a lot made of us being the No. 1 seed, only having 10 losses, being [ranked] No. 1 in the country most of the year: ‘Can Virginia handle the pressure?’ And it is a lot of pressure, there’s no question about it. But you can’t hide from it. You just gotta attack it and embrace it, and that’s what our guys have done.”
On a day when O’Connor’s offense struggled to string together hits against UCI starter Crosby Slaught and relievers Jimmy Litchfield and Summers, Will Roberts kept the ‘Hoos close. The junior right-hander, who before this season had never appeared in the NCAA tournament, scattered five hits and walked only one in 7.1 innings Monday.
Roberts gave up a run in the third inning, and the score remained 1-0 until the sixth, when UVa center-fielder Kenny Swab’s first homer of the season made it 1-1. It was a rare lapse by Litchfield, a freshman left-hander who otherwise pitched brilliantly Monday.
“He was just keeping us off-balance,” Swab said. “But we all kept our heads up. Everybody was hitting the ball hard, just right at people. And we were just like, ‘Everybody just keep going, keep pushing. It’s going to come through eventually.’ ”
On Sunday, UC Irvine had forced a deciding game by rallying to win 6-4. The Anteaters’ final three runs came off UVa closer Branden Kline, who had also struggled in last year’s super regional against Oklahoma.
That didn’t sway O’Connor. With one out in the eighth Monday, and a runner on second, Kline replaced Roberts on the mound.
“I just went with my gut,” O’Connor said. “Branden Kline has some really, really good stuff. He’s not perfect sometimes, but he’s got swing-and-miss kind of stuff that can get you out of a jam … If I was going to go down, I was going to go down with that guy.”
Kline rewarded his coach’s faith. The Anteaters’ run in the ninth was unearned, and Kline kept his team in position to make the most stirring comeback in program history.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Kline, a sophomore from Frederick, Md. “Something really special.”
The view from the other dugout, obviously, was different. One out from Omaha — one strike — UC Irvine saw its season end on a crushing note. The Anteaters finished 43-18.
“You can imagine that for us this is difficult to swallow,” said Gillespie, who was exceptionally gracious throughout the super regional. “Some are tougher to take than others, and this is certainly one of them.
“This was a great game [in which] everybody sold out, played with everything they had, left everything on the field.”
The Anteaters, Kline said, “definitely played their hearts out. We came in today knowing that it was going to be a fight, and one of us was going to have to go home. They played extremely well. You gotta feel bad for them, but that’s baseball sometimes.”
As soon as one game ends, many coaches start looking ahead to the next. On Monday night, O’Connor told his players to savor the scene at Davenport. There would be plenty of time to prepare for Cal.
“You don’t have these kinds of moments very often in your athletic career, and they need to enjoy it,” O’Connor said. “This is not the end of it for Virginia baseball this season, that’s for sure, but I want them to enjoy each other and embrace each other and enjoy this moment.”
Two years ago, the Cavaliers clinched their first College World Series appearance by winning an NCAA super regional at the University of Mississippi. The celebration that followed Game 3 in Oxford won’t soon be forgotten, but it was surpassed by what took place Monday night in Charlottesville.
“It makes it the most special, the fact that we did it in our own ballpark,” O’Connor said. “Our fans have just been amazing. Coach Gillespie told me before the game, ‘Brian, I can’t get over what’s been done here,’ the fact that there’s a four-hour rain delay [Sunday] and practically every fan comes back to cheer our team on.
“It’s amazing, and I think there’s something about our team, maybe our program, that our fans and the people in this community can identify with. I don’t know what it is, but I’m sure glad that they’re on our side, and I’m sure glad that they support us. This super regional championship is as much for them as it is for anybody.”