By Jeff White
OMAHA, Neb. — The Pac-10, the Big 12 and half the ACC delegation have gone home. Still standing at the College World Series are ACC champion Virginia and three teams from the SEC: South Carolina, Florida and Vanderbilt.
The NCAA champion will be crowned next week, and UVa remains in contention for the title after eliminating California 8-1 on Thursday night before a record crowd of 25,833 at TD Ameritrade Park.
“We were fortunate to capitalize on a lot of opportunities throughout the game,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “I’m just happy, and I know the players are happy that we have another shot tomorrow night, and we have another chance to play.”
The Cavaliers banged out 11 hits against the Golden Bears and got a sensational outing from senior right-hander Tyler Wilson, who struck out five, walked none and scattered five hits in 7.2 innings, improving his record to 10-0.
Wilson also earned the victory Sunday in UVa’s opener in Omaha, a 4-1 win over Cal in which he pitched 2.1 innings of relief.
“It’s the College World Series,” said Wilson, a second-team All-ACC selection. “How can you not pitch with adrenaline every time you step out there on that mound? The atmosphere is incomparable to anything else that you’ll ever play in at this level. And I was ecstatic just to be out there to give our team a chance to build some momentum going into the rest of the tournament.”
The CWS championship series begins Monday. On one side of the bracket will be Florida or Vandy. To fill the other one, UVa (56-11) must beat defending NCAA champion South Carolina (52-14) in back-to-back games, and O’Connor’s club has no margin for error.
The teams play Friday at 7 p.m. Eastern, and if the Gamecocks win, the Wahoos’ season will be over. If UVa prevails, the teams will meet again Saturday night, with the winner advancing to the best-of-three championship series.
USC has won 13 consecutive games in the NCAA tournament, a streak that began in last year’s CWS.
The ‘Hoos did not look past Cal (38-23) — the final score confirms that — but it’s no secret they wanted another shot at the Gamecocks. When the teams met Tuesday night, Virginia played one of its worst games of the season, losing 7-1.
The Cavaliers never recovered from a first inning in which they committed two errors and allowed three runs.
“You just try to bounce back,” second baseman Keith Werman said Thursday night. “That’s baseball. You’re not always going to have those great games. It’s a great feeling to have an opportunity to come back tomorrow and show them some real Virginia baseball.”
Center-fielder Kenny Swab said: “You go out there and play hard, play all nine [innings], play all 27 [outs]. We’re going to go out and have fun and play loose and be aggressive like we were tonight, and hopefully we’ll come out on the right side.”
Werman and Swab were among the Cavaliers’ heroes Thursday. Werman, a junior who entered the CWS hitting .210, is now 4 for 7 (.571) in Omaha after going 2 for 2 against Cal. He also had two sacrifice bunts, giving him 26 for the season, the most of any player in the country.
“Couldn’t ask for anything better,” Werman said of his recent surge. “I’m just trying to relax and have some fun and execute for the team. That’s what counts for me. It’s working out.”
In the third, Werman scored on John Barr’s sacrifice fly to put Virginia ahead 2-0. The score was unchanged when Swab came to the plate with one out and none on in the sixth.
Swab, a senior who had singled in the second inning, smashed a pitch from Cal reliever Kevin Miller into center field, where Darrel Matthews tried to field the ball on a short hop. He failed, with disastrous results for the Bears. The ball bounced past Matthews and rolled to the fence, and Swab kept chugging.
“The adrenaline was going,” he said.
On what was ruled a single with a three-base error, Swab came all the way around, touching home plate with his left hand for reasons known only to him.
“It’s dumb,” Swab said with a sheepish smile, “but it worked out.”
Swab’s run made it 3-0, but at that point “it’s still a game,” Cal coach David Esquer said. By the time the Bears recorded the third out, however, the ‘Hoos had collected four more hits, including doubles by David Coleman and Chris Taylor, and scored three more runs.
“I think it got away from us a little bit in that inning,” Esquer said.
That’s happened to a lot of teams this season against the Cavaliers, who are seeded No. 1 overall in the NCAA tournament.
“They make you play so well to beat them,” Esquer said. “I have a lot of respect for that club. Very deserving of all the attention they’ve gotten throughout the year. It’s going to be a heck of a semifinal with South Carolina and Virginia.”
After the game, O’Connor said he had not settled on a Friday starter, but no one will be shocked if it’s junior left-hander Danny Hultzen. The two-time ACC pitcher of the year started Sunday against Cal and threw 6.1 scoreless innings before giving way to Wilson.
Whichever pitcher gets the ball first Friday night will be hard-pressed to top Wilson’s latest gem.
“He kept us off balance to the point we were popping a lot of balls up, which is pretty uncharacteristic of our team,” said Cal designated hitter Tony Renda, the Pac-10 player of the year. “[With] a guy like him, you just gotta take advantage of his mistakes, and he didn’t make too many tonight.”
Senior right-hander Cody Winiarski closed the game for UVa and, as he had against South Carolina two nights earlier, pitched well. The talk of the postgame press conference, though, was Wilson, a 10th-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in this month’s Major League Baseball draft.
“All year long, whenever we’ve needed a great outing, maybe after a difficult loss, he’s responded every time for his team,” O’Connor said. “And he was the right guy to give the ball to tonight.”
O’Connor spent nine years as an assistant at Notre Dame before coming to UVa, where he’s in his eighth season as head coach. He’s coached a lot of players during that time, and Wilson “is as good of a leader as I’ve ever seen,” O’Connor said.
“He does things the right way. He cheers his teammates on, whether he’s in the game or not. The guy’s a warrior out there and a tremendous leader, and he deserves any and all accolades that he can get.”
And now, thanks in large part to Wilson, the Cavaliers have what they wanted: a chance to redeem themselves against the Gamecocks.
“Who wouldn’t, after you lose to them and not look too good losing to them?” Swab said. “We’ll be coming out ready to compete. That competitive drive is going to come out of everybody, and we’re going to be ready to go.”
SPECIAL OCCASION: In 1991, pitchers on the Creighton University team that played in the College World Series included a young man named Brian O’Connor, an Omaha native who grew up across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Before the game Thursday night, members of that Creighton team were recognized near home plate at TD Ameritrade Park. Then O’Connor’s former teammates and coaches sat back and watched UVa extend the greatest season in school history.
“It was a nice honor before the game,” O’Connor said. “I’m glad they did it. But I talked to the players a couple of hours before the game, our players, and told them what was going on and that I didn’t want it to take away from what their experience is. This experience — us being in Omaha playing in the World Series for a chance to play for a national championship — is about them, not me. But it was a nice tribute before the game, and the fact that all my college teammates had an opportunity to see our team play was something that is definitely memorable.”
BREAKTHROUGH: On the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend, UVa junior Steven Proscia went 6 for 12 with five RBI in three games at Davenport Field. Since then, little has gone right at the plate for the All-ACC third baseman.
Proscia was 2 for 11, with no RBI, in the NCAA super regional against UC Irvine in Charlottesville, and he was 0 for 7 in Omaha, with one RBI, heading into Virginia’s second game with Cal.
In the third inning, however, Proscia singled, and he walked (and scored Virginia’s seventh run) in the ninth. Every starting position player for UVa had at least one hit Thursday night.