June 23, 2011

By Jeff White

OMAHA, Neb. — Of the hundreds of teams that began the college baseball season in February, five are still playing. UVa is one of them. That’s no small feat, but Virginia’s goal is to be the last team standing at the College World Series.

For that to happen, the Cavaliers must win Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and then, starting Monday, beat Florida or Vanderbilt in a best-of-three series for the NCAA title.

For now, UVa (55-11) is focused solely on its next opponent in Omaha: California (37-22). The teams meet Thursday at 7 p.m. Eastern in an elimination game at TD Ameritrade Park.

In the first game for each at this CWS, Virginia beat Cal 4-1 on Sunday afternoon. Two days later, Cal beat Texas A&M 7-3, and UVa lost 7-1 to defending NCAA champion South Carolina.

If the Wahoos prevail Thursday night, they’ll have to beat South Carolina on Friday night and then again on Saturday night to advance to the CWS championship series. The Gamecocks, who like Florida and Vandy compete in the powerful SEC, have won 13 consecutive games in the NCAA tourney, dating to last season.

“You don’t really worry about it, that it’s an uphill battle. That’s obvious,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said Wednesday after his team’s practice at Creighton University.

“Everybody knows what’s in front of us. You just really have to take it one game at a time and try to survive and advance on. Who knows? In another five or six days, you could be looking at a chance to play for a national championship, but that doesn’t happen unless you come ready to play tomorrow night.”

The ‘Hoos appeared loose at a practice that lasted about 90 minutes Wednesday afternoon, wrapping it up with tricycle races on the field where O’Connor pitched for Creighton.

“I think we’re in great spirits,” O’Connor said. “We’re in Omaha, Nebraska, in June. What more do you want?”

One team’s season will end Thursday night, the Cavaliers know. It could be Virginia, which began the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. Such pressure is part of playing this time of year.

“Last week it was the same thing,” said senior right-fielder David Coleman, referring to the NCAA super regional in Charlottesville, where UVa rallied in the ninth inning to beat UC Irvine in the third and final game.

Coleman, like many in his sport, is a superstitious sort. After the loss to South Carolina, Coleman shaved off his playoff beard, and the team barber, senior Tyler Biddix, trimmed Coleman’s hair.

“But you can’t change your mentality,” said Coleman, an All-ACC performer who leads UVa with a .368 batting average. “You gotta stick to what you know and your same approach. So I’m not going to be thinking about how this could be my last at-bat, this could be my last pitch, or whatever. I’m just going to play.”

That will be Tyler Wilson’s approach as well.

“Sure, that’s definitely in the back of your mind going into it,” Wilson said Wednesday, “but when it comes time to toe the rubber tomorrow, I’ll pitch just as if it was my last game or my first game. I pitch every game out there like it’s my last. You gotta pitch with your hair on fire and take advantage of the opportunities.

“Whether it is my last — and I hope it’s not — I’m going to go out there the same way I’ve been going out for four years.”

Wilson, a senior right-hander, will start Thursday for the ‘Hoos. A middle reliever for most of his first three seasons at UVa, he’s primarily been a starter this year. But Wilson came out of the bullpen Sunday against Cal, pitched 2.1 innings and earned the victory to improve his record to 9-0.

And now the ‘Hoos will turn to him in a crucial situation, as they have so many times during his college career.

“I’m excited for the opportunity,” Wilson said. “Regardless of what’s happened earlier in the tournament, we knew that at some point our backs were probably going to be up against the wall. That’s what it’s going to take to win a national championship, to overcome obstacles.”

The Bears will start junior Dixon Anderson (4-3, 3.90 ERA), a 6-6, 224-pound right-hander.

Two-time ACC pitcher of the year Danny Hultzen, who started Sunday against Cal, is not an option in the rematch, O’Connor said, but the junior left-hander could be available Friday if UVa advances.

In 2009, when Virginia played at the College World Series for the first time, Hultzen started the team’s first and third games. Had his first start in Omaha lasted longer that year, O’Connor noted Wednesday, Hultzen might not have been available in Game 3.

Either way, the Cavaliers’ pitching staff is deeper than it was in 2009, O’Connor said. He used five relievers against South Carolina — Cody Winiarski, Kyle Crockett, Justin Thompson, Scott Silverstein and Whit Mayberry.

“You just have a lot of different options, and that’s what you need to continue to have a chance,” O’Connor said. “But you also have to have a good offensive output. We’re not going to shut the teams down that are in this tournament. We’ve got to be able to swing the bats and be aggressive.”

Against South Carolina, which scored three first-inning runs, Virginia was hitless until the fourth, when junior catcher John Hicks belted a solo home run.

“In the early part of the game, I thought we were trying to be a little too selective, and that’s not what’s gotten us to this point,” O’Connor said Wednesday. “It’s been being very aggressive at the plate, and when they’ve thrown first-pitch fastballs, we’ve unloaded on the ball. We took a few last night that we typically are more aggressive with. And that has something to do with [the fact that] South Carolina punched us in the face in the top of the first inning and got us back on our heels. It took us a few innings, I think, to recover.”

During the regular season, UVa had several notable winning streaks, including one of 13 games and another of 12. The Cavaliers are fully capable of winning three games in three days, but O’Connor doesn’t want his team thinking about the big picture.

“You just gotta win the one in front of you,” he said.

BRIGHT SPOT: UVa had few standouts against South Carolina, but Crockett shined. In his first apperance since June 5, the freshman left-hander from Poquoson High struck out two, allowed one hit and walked none in two scoreless innings.

“I thought Kyle Crockett pitched very well, and he’s going to need to continue to pitch well for us,” O’Connor said Wednesday. “It’s been two weeks since he’s gotten on the mound, and so you’re obviously always concerned about that. But against a very good lineup, I thought that he threw the ball as good as he possibly can, so I was very, very encouraged by what I saw.”

FUN AND GAMES: UVa is known for its businesslike approach on the field, but Wilson provided some comic relief Tuesday night at TD Ameritrade Park. During the 68-minute rain delay that preceded the start of the Virginia-USC game, Wilson came out of the dugout to knock a beach ball back into the outfield bleachers.

“When you’re in a rain delay like that, anything you can do to keep your players loose and ready to play [is good],” O’Connor said Wednesday. “Obviously, it didn’t look like we were loose in the early part of the game, but you want to let them be kids and enjoy the atmosphere they’re in.

“It’s rare for us. I’ll tell you that. But we just obviously didn’t want to get shown up by South Carolina, because their guys were going out there. So it was great to see Willy out there.”

MULTI-TALENTED: Wilson did not pitch against the Gamecocks, but he was a busy man Tuesday night. He hit fungos to this teammates during warm-ups.

“I’ve been doing it since my first year,” he said.

Wilson starred at Midlothian High School, south of Richmond. He played the middle infield and, occasionally, third base when he wasn’t pitching for the Trojans.

“Personally, I think I was a better hitter than I was a pitcher at Midlo,” Wilson said, and he still savors any opportunity he gets to swing the bat.

“Sometimes I think on teams it’s easy for there to be a position player and pitcher divide,” he said. “Our team definitely doesn’t have that, but I guess my fungo [hitting] is a way to connect myself as a pitcher to the position players.

“It kind of brings back memories. I love it. Every second of it is a great time. I got to hit fungos at the College World Series the other day. That was pretty awesome.”

SCHOLAR-ATHLETE: When the CWS ends for the Cavaliers, some of O’Connor’s players will begin negotiations with the Major League Baseball teams that drafted them early this month. Others will head off to summer leagues.

Biddix, who came to UVa in 2007 as a recruited walk-on, will begin his job as an investment banking analyst with J.P. Morgan in New York.

“The official start date is next Monday, actually, so hopefully I’ll be a few days later,” he said after practice Wednesday.

Biddix graduated from Mills Godwin High School in the Richmond area. He had scholarship offers from such schools as VMI and William and Mary, Biddix recalled, and “I had some interest from some Ivy League schools, but Virginia was my first choice, because I thought I wanted to go into engineering at the time, and I wanted to play in the ACC.”

He ended up in the renowned McIntire School of Commerce, from which he graduated with a 3.74 grade-point average. Biddix received the Gus Tebell Memorial Memorial Award last month as the senior male student-athlete with the highest GPA through his four years at UVa. He was honored again in Omaha, during the CWS’ opening ceremonies, for having the highest GPA on the UVa baseball team.

His college experience, Biddix said, has been fantastic.

“I was just having a conversation with my parents, actually, about how incredible it is that my baseball career gets to come to an end here in Omaha,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

In 2009, Biddix came to Omaha with the team but was not included in the Cavaliers’ active roster for the College World Series. He’s one of UVa’s reserve infielders in Omaha this year.

“It’s great,” he said. “It’s definitely a different experience this time around, with a different team, a different group of guys, but it’s been very satisfying this time around, being in the mix.”

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