By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — No matter what happens this week in Durham, N.C., Brian O’Connor’s baseball team is headed to the NCAA tournament for the 10th time in his 10 seasons as UVa’s head coach.
Moreover, the Cavaliers are locks to host an NCAA regional and, should they advance past the NCAA tourney’s opening weekend, almost certainly would play their best-of-three super regional at Davenport Field, too.
Given all that, is the ACC tournament a big deal for the Wahoos? Absolutely, their skipper said Saturday evening in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“We’ll certainly go in it to win the tournament,” O’Connor said after UVa closed the regular season by edging North Carolina 8-7 in 11 innings at Boshamer Stadium.
The `Hoos have captured two conference titles (2009 and 2011) under O’Connor, who on Monday was named the ACC coach of the year, and they’re in full pursuit of another.
“It’s one of our goals, to win an ACC championship,” O’Connor said, “and we’ll have that opportunity next week. Obviously it’s going to take an effort like we had this weekend, because everybody else is going there for the same reason. And I also think that it’s just important that we continue to play good winning baseball moving into the postseason.”
UVa, No. 5 in the latest Baseball America rankings, is seeded No. 3 in the eight-team ACC tourney. With Virginia in Pool B are No. 2 seed Florida State, No. 6 seed Virginia Tech and No. 7 seed Georgia Tech.
Pool A comprises No. 1 seed UNC, No. 4 seed NC State, No. 5 seed Clemson and No. 8 seed Miami.
For Virginia (45-9), the ACC tourney begins Wednesday at 3 p.m. against No. 21 Virginia Tech (35-19). UVa faces Georgia Tech in the 11 a.m. game Thursday, then closes pool play Saturday at 11 a.m. against No. 7 FSU.
The Cavaliers lost only two ACC series during the regular season: to the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta and the Hokies in Blacksburg. Against Virginia Tech, UVa won the opener 15-6 but dropped a doubleheader the next day, losing 5-3 and 11-6.
The winners of Pools A and B will meet for the ACC championship Sunday at 1 p.m. at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
In its highly anticipated series with UNC, Virginia took the opener 10-4 on Thursday night. About 24 hours later, the Tar Heels rallied for an 8-5 win. In the decisive third game, UVa gave up three runs in the bottom of the 11th but held on for an unforgettable victory, thanks to a spectacular catch at the wall by sophomore left-fielder Mike Papi and a UNC baserunning blunder on the game’s final play.
It was, O’Connor noted, a “a very, very strange way to finish a ball game,” but that made the victory — and the series win — no less satisfying.
“We have to beat these kind of teams to win championships,” said Papi, who leads the `Hoos with a .408 batting average.
“This is a great momentum boost for us,” said fifth-year senior Jared King, UVa’s first baseman.
O’Connor said: “I’m just so proud of our team. All year long I’ve talked about the poise that we’ve played with. There’s no panic in our players when they fall behind or they’re in difficult situations. They just keep picking each other up and finding a way to play winning baseball.”
After giving up two runs in the bottom of the eighth and another run in the ninth, Virginia steadied itself and then struck back at Carolina (47-8). In the top of the 11th, after a two-run triple by freshman John LaPrise pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 7-4, King’s RBI single made it 8-4. It was King’s only hit in six at-bats Saturday.
“That’s just a great example of how our guys, they don’t pout and they don’t feel sorry for themselves,” O’Connor said. “No matter what’s going on, they hang in there and find a way, and Jared was certainly a great example of that.”
Virginia, which won seven of its final eight regular-season games, had six players named All-ACC on Monday. Papi (outfielder), senior Reed Gragnani (second base), sophomore Nick Howard (DH/utility) and junior Kyle Crockett (relief pitcher) made the first team, and freshman Joe McCarthy (outfield) and sophomore Branden Cogswell (shortstop) were selected to the second team.
McCarthy, who’s hitting .333 with 47 RBI, also became the second Cavalier to be named ACC freshman of the year. The first, in 2009, was Danny Hultzen.
Cogswell, who’s batting .346, fractured the middle finger on his throwing hand in practice May 4 and missed the final seven games of the regular season. He’s doubtful for the ACC tournament. Classmate Kenny Towns, who had been starting at third base in Cogswell’s absence, with Howard sliding over to shortstop, is questionable for the games in Durham.
Towns suffered a hip injury Friday night against UNC. With Towns unavailable Saturday, Howard moved back to third and LaPrise started at shortstop. LaPrise was 0 for 3 when he came to the plate in the 11th. Unfazed, he smashed a triple that scored Gragnani and sophomore catcher Nate Irving.
“It just goes to show, the game of baseball, it always gives you chances in the end,” Papi said, “and he comes up for us big, and we only win by one run, so it’s huge for us.”
The atmosphere at Boshamer Stadium throughout the series was like that found at an NCAA super regional — or at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
“Great crowd,” O’Connor said. “Two really good teams, and you gotta make your pitches and make your plays and execute offensively in order to have a chance to win.”
In the second game of the series, Virginia scored once in the top of the eighth to stretch its lead to 5-2, only to surrender six runs in the bottom half of the inning.
“Last night is as difficult a loss as you can possibly have,” O’Connor said Saturday evening, “and I think a lot of people maybe would have expected our team to come in here and lay down [in the series finale]. We did not. We came here to win, and I think that’s a great quality that this team has, and we obviously have a lot of momentum and are playing very good baseball at the most important time.”