By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Eight months later, people still bring up The Hit when they see Chris Taylor. “All the time,” he said with a smile.
Who can blame them? Taylor, after all, had a starring role in the most dramatic play in the history of UVa baseball. His two-run single with two outs in the bottom of the ninth lifted the Cavaliers to a 3-2 win over UC Irvine and sent them to the College World Series for the second time in three seasons.
“It’s just an awesome feeling,” Taylor said at Davenport Field, where he drilled that hit up the middle June 13 in the final game of the Wahoos’ best-of-three NCAA super regional with the Anteaters.
“It’s something I’ll never forget and always cherish. At the same time, this is a new season, so I’ve got hopefully new moments and new experiences to look forward to this year.”
In a program that lost many of its 2011 standouts to pro baseball — Danny Hultzen, John Hicks, Steven Proscia, Tyler Wilson and Will Roberts among them — Taylor is one of the reasons expectations remain high in Charlottesville. The 6-1, 180-pound junior from Virginia Beach returns at shortstop for UVa, which opens its ninth season under Brian O’Connor on Feb. 17 against Boston College in Conway, S.C. (The game won’t count in the ACC standings.)
“There’s no question we lost a lot of great players from last year,” Taylor said, “but at the same time we’ve got new guys stepping in that I think are going to have big years and really step up for us. So it’s exciting to see how we’re going to do as a team.”
Taylor, Virginia’s leadoff batter, hit .305 as a sophomore and played some of his best ball when it mattered most. Late in the season he had at least one hit in 14 consecutive games, a streak that didn’t end until Virginia’s last game at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
Against UC Irvine in the super regional, Taylor was 6 for 12.
“I think it was good for me to end the season on a positive note as far as how I was playing,” Taylor said. “That helped me into the summer. I feel like I had a strong summer.”
After returning from Omaha, Taylor headed to New England, where he played for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the prestigious Cape Cod League.
“It was awesome,” Taylor said. “You play at the highest level every day and get to face some good competition, and I really enjoyed it up there.”
Taylor, whose father wrestled at Virginia Tech, committed to UVa in September 2008, early in his senior year at Cox High School.
In 2009, Taylor was named the state’s Group AAA player of the year. He played in 29 games as a UVa freshman in 2010, but the team’s starting shortstop that season was Tyler Cannon, a senior.
Opening day in 2011 found Taylor in right field and classmate Stephen Bruno at shortstop. They had battled through the fall of 2010 for the starting job at shortstop, with Bruno prevailing by a narrow margin. Still, Taylor remained very much in the coaching staff’s plans.
“I knew that Chris Taylor would need to be in our lineup every day,” O’Connor said, and that was all Taylor needed to hear.
“I wanted to be able to help the team in any way I could,” Taylor said last year, “and if that was at shortstop or right field or wherever, I’d be happy to be there.”
He ended up at shortstop after a severe hamstring injury ended Bruno’s season in March. Bruno is healthy again, and he and freshman Branden Cogswell worked at shortstop in the fall, along with Taylor. In the end, O’Connor decided to keep Taylor at short and start Bruno at third base.
“You’re always looking and always adjusting what you need to do,” O’Connor said. “It was a question of, ‘OK, what are all the pieces of the puzzle that are going to make us the best club we can be?’ Obviously, Chris showed us last year what he can do at that important position.”
Taylor noted that he and Bruno have “been competing with each other ever since we were freshmen, and I think that’s made us both better baseball players as a result. We enjoy it, and at the end of the day we’re still both good friends and good teammates.”
Having Bruno at third, Taylor said, is “awesome. I have all the trust in him that he’s going to make the plays. I feel real good about our whole infield this year.”
Like UVa fans, O’Connor will never forget Taylor’s ninth-inning hit against UC Irvine. The Cavaliers’ skipper also remembers what happened earlier that inning and how his shortstop responded to adversity.
“I will always have a very, very high level of respect for Chris Taylor,” O’Connor said.
In the top of the ninth, a throw from UVa’s catcher, Hicks, had glanced off Taylor’s glove at second, allowing UC Irvine’s Sean Madigan to advance to third. Madigan eventually scored to put the Anteaters up 2-1.
Taylor told reporters after the game that he should have caught the ball. “It would have an unbelievable catch by him if he had,” O’Connor said recently, but he understood Taylor’s reaction.
“So you feel as a player maybe the disappointment that you let your team down, and then he’s the guy standing at the plate at the end of the game to win the ball game for us,” O’Connor said. “So you can imagine what the kid went through: from possibly letting his team down, and then winning it for his club. I think that speaks to what that kid’s made of.
“Chris Taylor is just a really, really great college baseball player. Not only is he a good defensive player and offensive player, he really knows the game. This kid, when he came here, his adjustment to college baseball was not as big as other players’. He’s just really a great, complete player. I happen to think that this kid’s one of the best college shortstops in the country, both defensively and offensively.”