By Jeff White
OMAHA, Neb. — A one-sided loss probably would have been easier for UVa’s baseball team to take.
For the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, the sudden end to the greatest season in the program’s history was excruciating.
With an ESPN audience and a record crowd of 25,882 at TD Ameritrade Park breathlessly looking on, defending NCAA champion South Carolina capitalized on two errors in the bottom of the 13th inning and edged Virginia 3-2 in a marathon that figures to be part of College World Series lore for many years to come.
“Wow. What a college baseball game,” UVa coach Brian O’Connor said late Friday night. “Unfortunately, we came out on the wrong end of it.”
In the 10th, the 12th and again in the 13th, the Wahoos (56-12) loaded the bases. Each time the Gamecocks managed to escape. For the game, Virginia was 1 for 13 with runners in scoring position.
The Cavaliers’ best opportunity came in the 13th, when they loaded the bases with none out. But USC closer Matt Price struck out sophomore Chris Taylor — whose 14-game hitting streak ended Friday night — and then senior John Barr hammered a line drive that went directly to Scott Wingo. The Gamecocks’ second baseman flipped the ball to shortstop Peter Mooney at second to double up UVa’s Colin Harrington, who had strayed off the bag.
“When you play 13 innings, you’re going to leave some guys on base,” O’Connor said. “Obviously that has a lot to do with South Carolina’s quality of pitching, being able to pitch in the clutch. But it’s pretty simple. The bottom line is, we had chances to win this ball game multiple times, and we just couldn’t get the big hit.”
USC coach Ray Tanner said: “So many things happened. They had their opportunities. We had our opportunities.”
The game — the Cavaliers’ fourth at this College World Series — began at 6:09 p.m., local time, on a gorgeous summer evening. Four hours and 25 minutes later, it ended when relief pitcher Cody Winiarski’s errant throw got past third baseman Steven Proscia and bounced into foul territory, allowing the Gamecocks’ Adam Matthews to come home with the winning run.
The throwing error was the second of the inning for Winiarski, a senior who had come on for Branden Kline at the start of the 13th. Each came after he fielded what was supposed to be a sacrifice bunt. On the first, Winiarski tried to force Matthews, a pinch-runner, out at second base, but the throw was wide of Taylor, Virginia’s shortstop, and went into the outfield. On the second, with runners on first and second, Winiarski fielded Robert Beary’s bunt and, at the direction of UVa’s coaches, tried to get Matthews at third.
“I absolutely take the hit [on that decision],” O’Connor said. “I took a chance. Quite frankly I went against my baseball book that I use. Typically I collect the out [at first], and then we might walk somebody and set up a double play. I just felt like the guy that was bunting in that situation was not one of their better bunters, in my opinion, and I thought that we’d have a chance to get the lead out.”
As Matthews crossed home plate, his teammates raced on the field to celebrate South Carolina’s 14th straight win in the NCAA tourney, a remarkable streak that started at last year’s College World Series.
UVa’s players, stunned, eventually gathered outside their dugout, along the first-base line, where O’Connor addressed the team. Both of Virginia’s losses in Omaha were to South Carolina.
“There’s not a script for what you say to them,” O’Connor said later. “I just told them that I’m extremely proud of them, that they needed to walk out of here with their heads high, that some people might feel that you’re the No. 1 national seed, that maybe you failed, but that is certainly not the case.
“The lessons that they learned in our baseball program, I assured them, 20 years from now they’ll come back and [tell] me I was right, these lessons they learned on this field and as a group and as a team will make them better men. So that was the message to them.”
South Carolina (53-14) will meet SEC rival Florida (53-17) in the best-of-three CWS championship series, which starts Monday night. Florida is the No. 2 national seed in the NCAA tourney, and USC is No. 4.
Florida eliminated another SEC power, Vanderbilt, 6-4 on Friday afternoon, and that left three teams in this College World Series, the first not played at storied Rosenblatt Stadium. Had Virginia beaten South Carolina on Friday night, the teams would have met again Saturday night, with the winner advancing to face the Gators.
“At this level, when you’re in the final four of the College World Series, you have to be a little bit better,” O’Connor said. “You have to execute a little bit better, and we just didn’t quite do enough.”
The Cavaliers will head home Saturday afternoon pondering what-ifs. What if Major League Baseball draft picks John Hicks and Proscia hadn’t struggled so much at the plate? What if two-time ACC pitcher of the year Danny Hultzen had gone more than three innings? Hultzen, whom the Seattle Mariners selected with the No. 2 pick in the MLB draft, struck out eight of the 10 batters he faced Friday night, throwing virtually nothing except fastballs.
“It was really a mismatch,” Tanner said.
O’Connor said: “His stuff tonight was lights out. You can see why he’s going to be in the big leagues in a very, very short time.”
But the junior left-hander had grown ill during the day, and O’Connor decided before the game that Hultzen, who had started Virginia’s CWS opener against California last Sunday, would pitch only a few innings Friday night.
“He was feeling under the weather today,” O’Connor said, “and he was gutting it out as much as he could. He was in pretty miserable shape after the first inning. This kid’s got a very, very bright future, and I was not going to put that at risk … If we don’t win a national championship, we don’t win a national championship. That kid’s done so much for our program for the last three years, and I owed that to him.”
Even without Hultzen, the Cavaliers pitched well enough to win. Kyle Crockett and Kline, who are likely to be among Virginia’s weekend starters in 2012, were brilliant in relief. The Gamecocks struck out a season-high 18 times Friday night.
In the eighth, with the score 2-2, USC loaded the bases with one out, but Kline fanned Jackie Bradley Jr. and Adrian Morales to end the inning.
“Certainly Hultzen is as good as it gets,” Tanner said, “but there are other guys [at UVa] that are special as well. So we’re very fortunate to be able to win tonight.”
Crockett, a freshman left-hander who had pitched only 2.1 innings in the NCAA tournament, went four Friday night, scattering four hits, striking out three and walking none.
Kline, a sophomore right-hander who made the All-ACC first team at closer, allowed only three hits and fanned seven in five innings, by far his longest appearance of the season.
“As the innings went on, I started to fatigue a little bit,” said Kline, seated next to Crockett at the postgame press conference, “but I just tried to keep the team in the ball game. And I really wouldn’t have had a chance to do what I did without Kyle over here. So give him all the credit as well.”
The Gamecocks’ first two runs came on a fourth-inning fly ball that Barr, in left field, momentarily lost in the sun. It dropped for a double, allowing Christian Walker to score from third and Bradley from second.
“That was a big run there,” O’Connor said. “He makes that catch, they tag up, and maybe they only score one run that inning.
“There’s so many things in that ball game that happened that if just one or two of them could have gone your way, maybe we’d be talking differently right now.”
UVa pulled even at 2-2 in the eighth when Taylor, who had reached on an error, scored from second on another error. But the Cavaliers will long rue the opportunities they squandered later in the game.
In the 10th, pinch-hitter Reed Gragnani struck out, leaving the bases loaded. In the 12th, Shane Halley, who had taken over in center field two innings earlier, came to the plate with one out. The bases were loaded again, but Halley hit into a 6-4-3 double play. So it went for the Cavaliers, and so their magical season ended in the city of O’Connor’s birth.
No matter what happens in the CWS championship series, Virginia will finish the season with the most victories of any team in Division I. Along the way, the ‘Hoos captured the ACC title, earned their first No. 1 national seed and hosted — and won — an NCAA regional and then a super regional at Davenport Field. They won two games in Omaha after going 1-2 there in 2009 in their first CWS appearance. And they did all that after losing five everyday starters, and the No. 2 pitcher, from a team that won 51 games in 2010.
“I’ve got a tremendous amount of pride in this team and what they accomplished this year,” O’Connor said.
FAN APPRECIATION NIGHT: The Cavaliers are scheduled to arrive back in Charlottesville on Saturday afternoon, and fans are invited to welcome the team home at Davenport Field that evening. Information about the event, which is scheduled to run from 6 to 7:30 p.m., can be found here.