By Jeff White
OMAHA, Neb. — From Brian O’Connor‘s first day as UVa’s baseball coach, the pillars of his program have been pitching and defense.
Against defending NCAA champion South Carolina, the Cavaliers were uncharacteristically suspect in both areas Tuesday night. And now Virginia, the No. 1 overall seed when the NCAA tournament began early this month, finds itself facing an elimination game in the College World Series.
Once play began Tuesday night, after a 68-minute rain delay, things unraveled quickly for the Wahoos. UVa allowed 13 hits and made three errors — two in a disastrous first inning — and lost 7-1 to USC before a crowd of 22,027 at TD Ameritrade Park.
Only once before had this UVa team been beaten so soundly: on May 19, in a 6-0 loss to North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
“Overall, we just didn’t do the fundamental things it takes to win a college baseball game at this level,” O’Connor, Virginia’s eighth-year coach, said Tuesday night.
The Gamecocks, meanwhile, did it all, which is not unusual for them in postseason. USC has won 13 straight games in the NCAA tourney, an odds-defying run that started in last year’s CWS. South Carolina surrendered only five hits to Virginia and made several spectacular plays in an error-free night on the field.
“We played probably one of our better games of the year tonight, and we certainly needed it playing a team the quality of Virginia,” USC coach Ray Tanner said. “We pitched extremely well. We played really tough defense, had some timely hitting. We really probably can’t play any better than that.”
UVa opened CWS play Sunday afternoon with a 4-1 victory over California, after which O’Connor told reporters, “I certainly wouldn’t count Cal out of this thing.” His instincts were correct.
Cal eliminated Texas A&M, 7-3, on Tuesday afternoon to set up a rematch with UVa. The Cavaliers (55-11) will meet the Golden Bears (38-22) on Thursday night at 7 o’clock Eastern.
The loser heads home. The winner advances to a Friday night game with South Carolina (52-14), which needs only one more victory to return to the CWS’ best-of-three championship series.
“We’re not taking anything for granted,” Gamecocks center-fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. said Tuesday night, “but we’re in a good situation right now, and we’re going to try to take advantage of it as much as possible.”
Bradley, a graduate of Prince George High School in Virginia, batted cleanup against the ‘Hoos. He went 2 for 5 with an RBI on a night when his team’s starting 3-4-5-6 hitters were a combined 10 for 19.
Junior right-hander Will Roberts, who entered with an 11-1 record and a 1.58 earned-run average, lasted only 3.1 innings in his CWS debut. Roberts gave up eight hits and six runs — three were unearned — before O’Connor replaced him with senior right-hander Cody Winiarski.
“I just didn’t really have it all day,” Roberts said.
He could not, however, have started the game on a more auspicious note. Roberts struck out leadoff batter Evan Marzilli on three pitches, then retired Scott Wingo on a groundout. The Gamecocks’ third batter, Christian Walker, hit a grounder to junior Steven Proscia, and Roberts appeared ready to emerge unscathed from an eight-pitch first inning.
But Proscia, the All-ACC third baseman who entered the game with only five errors, failed to field the ball cleanly, and Walker made it to first. He came around to score on Bradley’s double, and Adrian Morales and Brady Thomas added RBI singles during a game-changing stretch that included another UVa error, this one by first baseman Jared King.
“Any time you make errors, it’s frustrating,” said Proscia, who had another in the ninth, “especially when you have a guy on the hill giving it all he’s got. If I had made that play in the first inning, that could change the total complexion of the game … Our defense has been there all year, and we just didn’t have it tonight.”
By the time Roberts struck out Peter Mooney in the first inning, the Gamecocks led 3-0, and “we haven’t been in that position very often,” O’Connor noted.
Roberts said: “We were just fighting an uphill battle once we gave them that three-spot. I think it kind of relaxed them, maybe, and they were able to put some good swings on the balls there in the third and then in the fourth inning.”
USC’s lead grew to 4-0 in the fourth and 6-0 in the sixth. Roberts’ stint was the shortest by a UVa starter since Winiarski lasted three innings April 10 at Georgia Tech.
Winiarski pitched well Tuesday night, as did the Cavaliers who followed him on the mound, especially freshman left-hander Kyle Crockett. But there was no miraculous comeback in this game.
Virginia didn’t get its first hit until the bottom of the fourth, a bases-empty home run by junior catcher John Hicks that made it 6-1. By that time, the Gamecocks had nine hits. In the fifth, senior left-fielder John Barr came to the plate with one out and the bases loaded.
Barr, an All-ACC performer, had not grounded into a double play all season. But he hit a comebacker to USC reliever John Taylor, who had just entered the game. Taylor threw home for the force, and then catcher Robert Beary fired to first to end the inning. Barr hit into another double play in the eighth.
“That’s just how our night was going all night, basically,” Proscia said.
Only one UVa player had more than one hit against USC: sophomore Chris Taylor (2 for 4), who’s now 15 for 34 in the NCAA tournament.
“Once we fell down three in the top of the first, our guys didn’t pack it in,” O’Connor said, “but in the first three innings, I didn’t think our offensive approach was aggressive like it typically is. I think it was passive.”
In 2009, their first appearance in Omaha, the ‘Hoos went 1-2. To surpass that performance, Virginia must beat a Cal team in what ESPN is sure to bill as a David-vs.-Goliath matchup.
O’Connor has great respect for the Bears, who will be the home team Thursday night. Still, he said, Virginia is “at the point right now where no matter who we play on Thursday night, it’s about what we do. It’s not about who we play. We did not play the way Virginia has played all year [against USC].”