By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Keith Werman came to the plate with one out in the ninth inning Sunday night, the UVa fans at Davenport Field stood and applauded, and they stayed on their feet throughout the senior second baseman’s at-bat.
The fans saw the scoreboard, which showed Oklahoma leading 5-1, and they knew this might well be the final college at-bat for one of most beloved baseball players in UVa history.
The 5-7, 150-pound Werman heard the fans, and their support touched him. He added an exclamation point to a remarkable career at Virginia by ripping an RBI single to make it 5-2. The rally continued, and when two Sooners failed to communicate properly on a fly ball to shallow right field, two more runs scored. Suddenly it was 5-4, and what had seemed all but impossible a few minutes earlier now was within the Cavaliers’ grasp.
“That’s what the program’s made of,” Werman said, “and we’re going to play all nine innings, all 27 outs, like we say every day.”
Alas, this night brought no repeat of the Wahoos’ miraculous win over UC Irvine in last year’s NCAA tournament, a two-out comeback in the ninth that sent Brian O’Connor’s team to the College World Series. Against Oklahoma, out No. 27 came moments after Stephen Bruno’s two-run double scored Werman and Chris Taylor to make it a one-run game.
Freshman Derek Fisher grounded out, and for the second time in three seasons, Oklahoma left Davenport Field with a victory that eliminated UVa (39-19-1) from the NCAA tournament.
At 4 p.m. Monday, Oklahoma (40-23), seeded No. 2 in this regional, meets No. 3 seed Appalachian State (41-16) at Davenport Field. If the Mountaineers win, they’ll move on to face two-time defending NCAA champion South Carolina in a super regional at Columbia, S.C. If the Sooners prevail, they’ll face the Mountaineers again Monday night in a winner-take-all finale.
When the ‘Hoos came to the ballpark on Sunday, they fully expected to be playing Monday for a fourth straight trip to an NCAA super regional. But UVa lost 6-5 to Appalachian State on Sunday afternoon and then had to face Oklahoma in an elimination game about an hour later.
As they had against the Mountaineers, who led 6-0 after two innings, the Cavaliers fell behind early against the Sooners. Oklahoma led 1-0 after two innings and 4-0 heading into the fifth. The ‘Hoos didn’t go quietly in either game, but their inability to execute with runners in scoring position, coupled with uncharacteristic defensive lapses, led to their downfall.
The unearned run that Oklahoma scored in the seventh proved to be decisive.
“Today obviously wasn’t one of the better days [for] Virginia baseball, that’s for sure,” O’Connor said late Sunday. “It’s not too often that this program’s lost two games in a day. But that’s to the credit of Appalachian State and the team that they have, and obviously Oklahoma’s got a really good ball club.”
In nine seasons under O’Connor, the Cavaliers have won 411 games and made nine trips to the NCAA tournament. Twice — in 2009 and ’11 — Virginia has advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
The talent lost from the 2011 team was staggering. Such standouts as Danny Hultzen, Tyler Wilson, Will Roberts, John Hicks and Steven Proscia are now playing pro ball, and UVa’s coaching staff had to rely heavily on freshmen in 2012.
The season did not start auspiciously for Virginia. After the Cavaliers dropped three games in a mid-March series at Florida State, their record stood at 11-8-1. Something had to give, “and we made some adjustments and some changes to what our approach was and how we were going about our business,” O’Connor recalled Sunday night. “I thought we went off on a pretty good run and earned the right to be playing here at home. But unfortunately we did not play our best baseball this weekend.
“Obviously as the leader of the program I have to take full responsibility for that. This game’s a funny game. We had an opportunity there in the ninth, and you just never know what run you give up will be the run that’ll cost you the ball game. And obviously we gave up a few runs there in that Oklahoma game that ended up costing us in the end. But overall I’m very, very proud of this team and proud of what we’ve accomplished, and I’m sure we’ll have this opportunity again.”
Rain washed out the games scheduled for Friday at the Charlottesville Regional, but Virginia, the No. 1 seed, pounded No. 4 seed Army 9-1 on Saturday afternoon. Little went right for the ‘Hoos after that. They never led in either of their final two games, and playing from behind takes a toll on a team, O’Connor acknowledged Sunday night.
“It’s not the situation you want to be in,” he said. “What you want to try to do is get good, quality starting pitching and maybe take a lead and then you can manage the game a little differently.”
The middle of Virginia’s batting order struggled mightily Sunday. Against Appalachian State, Fisher, batting cleanup, went 0 for 5, redshirt junior Jared King went 0 for 4, and freshman Brandon Downes went 0 for 3.
Against the Sooners, who got a brilliant pitching performance from sophomore left-hander Dillon Overton, Fisher was 0 for 5, Downes was 0 for 4 and King was 0 for 3. Fisher led Virginia in home runs and was second in RBI this season, but in his first NCAA tournament he went 0 for 15.
“Derek Fisher had an uncharacteristic weekend for him,” O’Connor said. “That kid’s really grown a lot this year. He went from the first 15, 20 games, just DH-ing and not playing left field, to being our everyday left-fielder and moving into the 4-hole. He’s young. He’s got a lot to learn. He’s a very, very talented kid. You can see that he’s very athletic … He’s got some good power potential. He’s going to be a fun guy to watch, but he’s got a lot of growing up to do. He knows that.”
The Major League Baseball draft begins Monday, and players such as Taylor, pitcher Branden Kline and Bruno, who led the team with a .370 batting average this season, may choose to leave UVa early to pursue pro careers. After Sunday’s final game, though, O’Connor singled out the three Cavaliers whose eligibility has been exhausted: Werman and pitchers Shane Halley and Justin Thompson.
Halley, who had been sidelined since May 12 with an oblique strain, started against Oklahoma. Thompson pitched the final 1.1 innings.
“The three players that I feel the most for,” O’Connor said, “are Keith Werman and Shane Halley and Justin Thompson, those three individuals that won’t have an opportunity to wear our uniform again and have always represented this program with a tremendous amount of class. They’re warriors and they play the game the right way and they play the game hard all the time. It’s disappointing that this is the end for them.”
Taylor, a junior from Virginia Beach, echoed his coach’s comments.
“These three guys have been a huge part of this program over the last four years,” Taylor said, “and I think what they’ve done and the way they’ve carried themselves over the course of those four years is the identity of the Virginia baseball program.”
Halley said: “I’ve learned so much here and been around great players the past four years. It’s been an honor playing under these coaches. I’ve learned so much, and just being able to watch these young guys this year, it’s been awesome. They started out rocky, nervous and everything, and they’ve grown so much in one year. It’s been impressive, and they’re going to be great here in the future.”
Indeed, when the Cavaliers were 11-8-1, their prospects for making the NCAA tournament, let alone hosting a regional, did not look bright. The team persevered, though, and ultimately met the standards of a program that ranks among the nation’s finest.
“I think it speaks to the kind of young men that we recruit here,” O’Connor said.
“These guys, when they put this uniform on — and I’m sure it’s the same for Oklahoma or App State or anybody else — they’ve just got a lot of pride in this program that they’re playing in. There’s huge expectations when a player walks into this program now, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Those young men, when we recruit them here, we tell them that’s the deal: You’re expected to win, you’re expected to carry yourself the right way, you’re expected to perform in the clutch, and we’re going to have very, very high standards for each and every one of them. And so it doesn’t surprise me that we got it going in the right direction and ended up here. I’m just disappointed obviously that it ended the way it did. But we’ll back, and we’ll have this opportunity again.”
HIGH PRAISE: Appalachian State is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1986. The Mountaineers’ head coach, Chris Pollard, grew up in Amherst, not far from Charlottesville, and he marvels at the transformation of UVa’s program under O’Connor and the improvements to Davenport Field.
“I can remember being here as a rising high school junior and a rising high school senior, back in 1998 and 1999, when there was one set of wooden bleachers and there was an Astroturf infield that still had the hash marks on it and the yardage markers on it from Scott Stadium,” Pollard said Sunday. “It had green paint on it, to try to cover those up, but you could still visibly see them.
“Now, to sit here in one of the nicest facilities in the country and to compete against a program that perennially is an Omaha contender, it’s a great honor for us and our team. I just told Coach O’Connor how impressed I am with the job he’s done with the program. They do it with a ton of class.”
Pollard also complimented O’Connor’s longtime assistants, Karl Kuhn and Kevin McMullan.
“It’s certainly, if not the best, one of the best staffs in the country,” Pollard said, “and to be able to be in the opposite dugout from those guys and compete against those guys, in this atmosphere, with what a great college baseball crowd this is, it was just special.”