By Jeff White
OMAHA, Neb. — If any team has an aura of invincibility at the College World Series, it’s South Carolina. Not only are the Gamecocks defending national champions, they’ve won 12 straight games in the NCAA tournament, a run that began in last year’s CWS.
South Carolina is not, however, the No. 1 overall seed in this NCAA tourney. That distinction belongs to the University of Virginia, and that’s yet another reason why Tuesday’s second game at TD Ameritrade Park looks so compelling.
At 7 p.m. Eastern, UVa (55-10) meets USC (51-14) in a game whose winner will be one victory from a berth in the CWS championship series. South Carolina is the No. 4 national seed.
“There’s no question that tomorrow night’s game is, at this point, the marquee matchup in the tournament,” Cavaliers coach Brian O’Connor said Monday afternoon after his team’s practice at Creighton University, his alma mater.
The Gamecocks “obviously have had experience playing in Omaha and winning in Omaha,” O’Connor said, “and there’s no question it’s going to take a terrific effort on our part, and we’re going to have to play a great baseball game to win.”
Virginia, South Carolina, California and Texas A&M make up one of the two four-team pools at the CWS. Each pool plays a double-elimination tournament, and the two winners will meet in a best-of-three series for the NCAA title.
UVa opened the CWS by beating Cal 4-1 on Sunday afternoon, and South Carolina edged Texas A&M 5-4 that night.
The Golden Bears meet the Aggies at 2 p.m. (Eastern) Tuesday. The loser heads home. The winner advances to face the UVa-South Carolina loser Thursday night. The UVa-South Carolina winner moves on to a Friday night game that could determine which team represents that pool in the best-of-three series for the NCAA title.
Rest assured, the Wahoos understand what’s at stake Tuesday night.
“We’re definitely aware of it,” junior third baseman Steven Proscia said Monday. “It was good to get the first one under our belt yesterday. Now tomorrow we got the defending national champs, but we’re just going to treat it like any other game. We know if we win we put ourselves in a good position, but that’s not on our mind right now. The only thing that’s on our mind is going out and playing good baseball.”
Each team started its ace Sunday: junior left-hander Danny Hultzen for UVa and junior left-hander Michael Roth for USC. The Gamecocks will go with sophomore right-hander Colby Holmes (7-3, 3.78 earned-run average) on Tuesday night.
O’Connor will hand the ball to junior right-hander Will Roberts (11-1, 1.58), a postseason afterthought his first two years at UVa.
In 2009, when Virginia reached the College World Series for the first time, Roberts never took the mound in Omaha. He didn’t pitch in the NCAA tournament that year — or last year, either. Roberts began this season as a midweek starter but pitched so well that O’Connor moved him into the weekend rotation.
“There’s no question that we’re here today in large part because of what Will Roberts has done,” O’Connor said. “He’s won a lot of big ball games for us, and if he doesn’t step up this year, we don’t have the kind of season that we do.”
The 6-4, 205-pound Roberts started the deciding game of UVa’s super regional against UC Irvine last Monday and allowed only one run in 7.1 innings. Still, this clearly will be the biggest start of his college career.
“It’s awesome,” Roberts said Monday. “It’s a huge opportunity for me and this team. I’m just really excited to get out there and get my feet wet in the World Series, because it’s something I’ve been watching my whole life, and to finally get a chance to pitch in it’s going to be pretty cool.”
At this time last year, the notion that Roberts would start a CWS game in 2011 might have struck may as far-fetched. But Roberts returned from the Cape Cod League last summer “with a fire in his belly that I hadn’t seen out of him his first two years,” O’Connor said.
“There’s no question his first two years, he wanted to do well, and his intentions were there, but he just hadn’t put it all together. He did it. Nobody else did it. Will Roberts did it, and he deserves all the credit for it.”
Roberts said he didn’t blame the coaching staff — or anyone else — for his lack of playing time in the 2010 postseason.
“We had pitchers that were better than me at that point, and they deserved to get the shots at the end of the year,” he said. “I was just going to make sure when I came back that I was going to be in a position to be pitching in these kinds of games this year.”
Roberts, a fifth-round pick of the Cleveland Indians, was one of eight Cavaliers taken early this month in the Major League Baseball draft. Eleven South Carolina players were drafted, which means there will be a staggering amount of top-level talent on the field Tuesday night.
The Gamecocks are “going to bring their best, but we’re going to bring our best, too, so it’s going to be a great game,” said senior right-hander Tyler Wilson, who relieved Hultzen on Sunday and is expected to start UVa’s third game in Omaha.
The first team to exit the College World Series was Texas, which North Carolina beat in an elimination game Monday afternoon. Of the seven teams left, three are from the SEC and two are from the ACC.
There’s been debate all season about which conference is the strongest, but it’s “not the ACC against the SEC in this game,” O’Connor said. “It’s two really good ball clubs that have earned the right to be here, and it’s about Virginia and South Carolina. It’s not necessarily what leagues that we play in. They’re both outstanding conferences, both represented here in Omaha, but we’re going to make it about Virginia and South Carolina.”
MILESTONE: The CWS opener was O’Connor’s 500th game as the Cavaliers’ coach. “I’d like to get 500 wins,” he said with a smile Monday.
At this rate, it won’t take O’Connor too long to reach that mark. His record in eight seasons at Virginia is 371-128-1, with eight trips to the NCAA tournament and two appearances in Omaha.
“It’s added a lot of gray hairs,” O’Connor said, “but there’s no question that those 500 games have flown by, and I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by really great assistant coaches and great players.”
Assistants Kevin MacMullan and Karl Kuhn have been on O’Connor’s staff for all eight seasons. O’Connor’s other assistant, Eddie Smith, is in his fifth year at UVa.
LUCK OF THE (FIGHTING) IRISH? UVa will be the home team Tuesday night, thanks to Smith’s victory in a coin flip with a South Carolina representative Monday night.
It would have been more newsworthy if Smith, a Notre Dame graduate, had lost. His success rate in these situations has been astoundingly high.
“I don’t want to talk too much about it, because it could jinx it,” O’Connor said, “but Eddie Smith has been calling our coin flips here for a couple of years. The only one I called was in the ACC tournament, the one with North Carolina for Game 3 [in Durham]. But he’s got something special going on, some kind of special mojo to win that coin flip.
Good luck getting Smith to discuss his strategy. “I think he bounces around between heads and tails,” O’Connor said. “He won’t tell his secret. Whether you’re home or the visitors, you still gotta play good baseball. But it is nice to have that last at-bat.”
MAKING THE ROUNDS: Since arriving in Omaha, UVa has practiced at four sites in the area: Bellevue East High School on Thursday, TD Ameritrade Park on Friday, Boys Town on Saturday and Creighton on Monday.
The ‘Hoos originally were scheduled to practice Monday morning at Bellevue East, O’Connor said, “but I decided to push it back, because I wanted to be able to hit in Creighton’s indoor facility, to get our starters off their feet and out of the sun a little bit.”
GLORY DAYS: As a Creighton pitcher, O’Connor played in the College World Series in 1991. That team will be honored Thursday at TD Ameritrade Park.
His former “teammates and coaches will be back for that, so I’m certainly looking forward to that,” O’Connor said Monday at Creighton, “and just thinking that 20 years ago I pitched in this facility, no question that it brings back some memories.”
O’Connor was born in Omaha and raised across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa. His parents still live in Council Bluffs.
Coming home is “definitely a big deal to him, and we’re just happy that we can come out here, and he gets to come out and see his family,” Proscia said. “It’s awesome seeing the [CWS] statue in front of the ballpark and knowing it’s his face on it.”
ONE WHO GOT AWAY: The most outstanding player of last year’s CWS was South Carolina outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., a graduate of Prince George High School in Virginia.
Bradley, a 5-10, 175-pound junior, started Sunday night for the Gamecocks after missing nearly two months with a tendon injury in his left wrist.
O’Connor is familiar with Bradley, whom the Boston Red Sox took with the 40th overall pick in this month’s MLB draft.
“We recruited Jackie out of high school,” O’Connor said. “He has really developed. He’s done a nice job. South Carolina’s done a nice job with him. He’s one heck of a player, and they’ve done a fantastic job there with him, no doubt.”