By Jeff White
OMAHA, Neb. — With player after player reaching base for UVa’s baseball team, a breakthrough seemed inevitable in the Cavaliers’ College World Series opener. It finally came in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Against California, whose remarkable story was recounted often during the ESPN telecast, Virginia scored two runs in the seventh and two more in the eighth. The Golden Bears pushed across a two-out run in the ninth to avoid a shutout, but the Cavaliers’ 4-1 victory left no doubt which was the superior team on this Sunday afternoon at TD Ameritrade Park.
The early innings were more anxious for UVa coach Brian O’Connor, an Omaha native whose team had nothing to show for getting two runners on in each of the second, third, fourth and fifth innings.
“Started to wonder there for a while,” O’Connor said. “We had a lot of missed opportunities that we didn’t capitalize on.”
Fortunately for the Wahoos (55-10), they had Danny Hultzen on the mound. Few things make O’Connor more confident.
The crowd of 21,275 did not witness a vintage performance by the No. 2 pick in this month’s Major League Baseball draft. Hultzen walked three, matching his season high. In general, though, he baffled the Bears (37-22). Hultzen struck out six and allowed only three hits before O’Connor called on senior right-hander Tyler Wilson with one out in the seventh.
“He was tough,” Cal coach David Esquer said of Hultzen, a two-time selection as ACC pitcher of the year. “A little bend, but no break. And I gotta give him a lot of credit. He was tough on our guys and got the big out when he had to.”
Hultzen struck out three in the first. He needed 28 pitches to get out of that inning, though, and he walked two batters.
“That was pretty crazy,” Hultzen said. “After that first inning, after a couple of walks, a couple of 10-pitch at-bats, I was kind of like, ‘This could be a long day.’ But once we got that third out, I settled down.”
As he watched Hultzen labor in the first, O’Connor began considering moves that might be necessary if his ace could not get in a rhythm.
“No question,” O’Connor said. “He was getting his pitch count up there, and I was hoping that he could have an inning or two that was a little bit quicker, and he did. He minimized it a little bit in the middle innings there. I just feel fortunate that we were able to get six and a third out of him, really.”
This is the second College World Series appearance for UVa. In 2009, O’Connor’s club went 1-2 at storied Rosenblatt Stadium, which TD Ameritrade Park replaced this year.
In ’09, the ‘Hoos dropped their CWS opener to eventual champion LSU. In last year’s CWS, South Carolina came back to win the NCAA title after losing its first game in Omaha, so it can be done. But make no mistake: Virginia is thrilled to be in the winners’ bracket of this double-elimination tournament.
Next up for UVa is a showdown with South Carolina (51-14) at 7 p.m. (Eastern) Tuesday. The Gamecocks, who have won 12 straight NCAA tournament games, edged Texas A&M 5-4 on Sunday.
The UVa-South Carolina winner will be in prime position to advance to the CWS’ best-of-three championship series against the winner of the other pool, which comprises Texas, Florida, Vanderbilt and North Carolina.
“That being said, I certainly wouldn’t count Cal out of this thing,” O’Connor said. “That program has scratched and clawed and done everything they can possibly do to get themselves here to Omaha.”
The financial woes of Cal’s athletics department nearly caused the shutdown of the Pac-10 school’s baseball program. But a campaign that by April had raised close to $10 million saved the program, and the Bears celebrated by advancing to the College World Series for the first time since 1992.
Heading into the opener, Cal was understandably wary of UVa, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. Second baseman Keith Werman’s bat, however, was not among the Bears’ biggest concerns.
Werman, a junior, entered the game batting .210, and he was 2 for 13 in the NCAA tourney.
“Defensively, he’s a pretty special player,” Wilson said. “At the same time, his numbers don’t depict what he’s done offensively all year long. He has a quality at-bat every time he steps in the box. He does his job, whether it’s moving a runner, laying down a bunt … Whatever the [situation] may be, he answers the bell every time he steps in there.”
Werman had a more tangible impact Sunday, going 2 for 4 with an RBI — his first multi-hit game since May 14 — and scoring Virginia’s first run. He led off the bottom of the seventh with a single, and later scored on classmate John Hicks’ RBI single to left. In the eighth, after Jared King drove in pinch-runner Mitchell Shifflett with a triple to right, Werman singled to left to make it 4-0.
“I love the kid,” O’Connor said. “He’s our guy, and we’re going to ride him till the end.”
Werman hit .400 as a freshman and .414 last season. But after the NCAA made major changes in the the composition of bats used in the college game — they now more closely resemble those used in the pros — Werman’s average plummeted.
His lack of production has frustrated Werman, but “he and I have had multiple conversations throughout the year and talked about how he needs to handle it and how he needs to manage it, and he’s doing a great job of it,” O’Connor said.
“He understands what he brings to the table in the big scheme of things. He’s a poised player that gets it. He can handle it. He understands that there’s a lot of different ways he can contribute for us.”
One of the hardest things about baseball, Werman said, is that “you’re going to fail. And it’s a matter of being able to stay positive every time. You still go up to the plate and clear out what happened. That’s the biggest thing.”
Junior right-hander Will Roberts (11-1, 1.58 ERA) is expected to start for UVa on Tuesday night. The Cavaliers’ Game 3 starter could be Wilson, who threw 39 pitches Sunday.
A middle reliever for most of his first three seasons at UVa, Wilson has started 15 games this year. But he knew heading into the CWS opener that O’Connor might ask him to come out of the bullpen against Cal, and Wilson embraced the opportunity.
“It was great,” he said. “Like I’ve always said, I think it’s just a privilege to get the ball, whether it’s out of the bullpen or as a starter. And I think that that’s the mentality a lot of guys on our team have.”
Sophomore closer Branden Kline replaced Wilson with two outs in the ninth and the score 4-1. The first batter Kline faced, Darrel Matthews, flied out to third baseman Steven Proscia, and the ‘Hoos were where they wanted to be: in the winners’ bracket.
“I was torn on it, quite frankly,” O’Connor said of the decision to use Kline. “I didn’t know whether or not to bring him in and let people get a chance to look at him. But now he’s had the experience of pitching on the mound in Omaha. Maybe that’ll prepare him more [for his next appearance].”
By the time Virginia takes the field again at TD Ameritrade Park, two teams will be gone from the College World Series. UNC and Texas meet in an elimination game Monday afternoon, and Cal and Texas A&M do the same Tuesday afternoon.
“I know you don’t always hit the ground running when you get into big tournaments,” Esquer said, “and you hope you can stay in the tournament long enough to kind of get comfortable and [allow] some guys to get moving a little bit.”
Likewise, the Cavaliers were not in sync early Sunday, at least at the plate, but “we knew that we’d come through eventually, that we’d eventually get on the board,” Hicks said. “And our pitchers did a great job of keeping us there.”
Hultzen became the third pitcher to have started a CWS game at Rosenblatt and another at TD Ameritrade Park.
“That’s pretty cool,” he said, and so is the new stadium.
“It’s awesome,” Hultzen said. “It’s a lot of fun to play on this field. It feels like we’re big-leaguers out there, playing on a brand-new field, with all the brand-new stuff out there. It’s hard to replace Rosenblatt, with all the tradition that happened there, but this place is doing a pretty good job.”