By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
DURHAM, N.C. — The field for the 64-team NCAA baseball tournament will be announced Monday afternoon. Four days later, games will begin at 16 regional sites, including the University of Virginia’s Davenport Field.
By the end of the NCAA tournament’s first weekend, the dramatic victory UVa earned Saturday over Florida State in the ACC tournament may seem a fading memory. That, Virginia coach Brian O’Connor knows, is how things go for teams with serious postseason aspirations.
“Unfortunately in sports, that’s how you’re judged,” O’Connor told reporters at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, not long after sophomore Kenny Towns’ three-run home run in the bottom of the 12th inning lifted third-seeded UVa to a 7-4 win over second-seeded FSU.
“As great as the walkoff home run was, as great as this victory was, people are going to remember this team on what we do from here moving forward.”
Evan so, O’Connor said, it was “a great college baseball game, and we were just fortunate to be a part of it.”
A loss to sixth-seeded Virginia Tech on Wednesday ultimately cost the Wahoos a spot in the ACC tournament’s championship game, and so they bused back to Charlottesville on Saturday afternoon. But not before celebrating a victory that earned Towns a Gatorade bath and gave the `Hoos a 2-1 record in this ACC tourney.
“There’s certainly something special about this club,” O’Connor said.
The stakes were higher Saturday for the seventh-ranked Seminoles (44-15) than for the fifth-ranked `Hoos (47-10). Unlike Virginia, FSU is not a lock to be one of the eight national seeds in the NCAA tournament. Still, the Cavaliers conceded nothing, even though they could not advance to Sunday’s championship game.
“We knew we still had something to prove, regardless of what the game meant,” Towns said. “I think that just shows the quality of our team and how important winning is to us and how we want to be known as a team.”
O’Connor said: “Winning matters to this team. It’s the foundation of our program, that every game matters, and when you have that type of mentality, hopefully it serves you well once you get into the NCAA tournament. There will be times in the NCAA tournament that we’ll get punched in the face and will have to get back up, and this team has shown all year long that they can respond to the challenges they have, and today’s just another great example.”
Virginia Tech’s win Friday afternoon over Georgia Tech meant the Cavaliers’ game Saturday would be their final one in this tournament. O’Connor met with his players Friday night , he said, and “I just told them that we never play games that don’t have some kind of meaning, and we have a chance tomorrow to show what kind of character and commitment to this program that the players have, and that we needed to treat it like it was a championship game, and certainly we did.”
UVa didn’t take its first lead Saturday until the 12th, when Towns belted a fastball from relief pitcher Jameis Winston — who’s likely to start at quarterback for FSU’s football team this fall — over the high blue wall in left field. The home run was the seventh of the season for Towns, who played third base Saturday after filling in at first Thursday in Virginia’s win over Georgia Tech.
“I was just thinking I need to barrel the ball up, because [Winston is] going to do half the work, just throwing that hard,” Towns said.
In the third inning, a homer by ACC freshman of the year Joe McCarthy had pulled Virginia to 1-1. But the `Noles scored three runs in the sixth to go up 4-1. UVa closed to 4-3 in the bottom of that inning, and that was still the score in the eighth when Towns reached on a one-out walk.
The Cavaliers’ next batter, sophomore Nate Irving, lined out to shortstop, but then classmate Mike Papi singled to right, and the `Noles showed a decided lack of urgency in the field.
As Towns rounded second, he saw third-base coach Kevin McMullan waving him on, and so he kept running. As he approached third, Towns saw that McMullan was still waving him on, so he sprinted for home. The throw was high, and Towns slid under the tag of catcher Stephen McGee to make it 4-4.
“I think it’s just one of those things that the runner had excellent speed,” FSU coach Mike Martin said, “and maybe we dropped our guard for a split-second, and that enabled the guy to get that extra step. It was a very aggressive, smart move that paid off.”
McMullan’s decision to send Towns home may have surprised O’Connor — “I was yelling, `Stop!’ ” he said with a smile — but it paid off for the `Hoos.
“It was obviously a huge, pivotal play in the game,” O’Connor said.
Virginia swept its three-game series with FSU at Davenport Field last month. The Seminoles won the ACC’s Atlantic Division, but they went 0-3 in Durham, losing on a walkoff home run in each game.
“This was a fun week,” Martin said, tongue in cheek. “Reminded me of that trip I took to Afghanistan for a vacation.”
Martin, who guided Florida State to the College World Series last season, lavished praise on the Cavaliers, especially their All-ACC reliever, Kyle Crockett. The junior left-hander, in his first appearance in more than a week, struck out six and allowed only two hits in four scoreless innings Saturday.
“You ain’t gonna see him long in the minors, boys,” Martin said. “That’s a beautiful, beautiful arm.”
Virginia also got a strong outing from redshirt junior Whit Mayberry, who in his third start of the year worked a season-long 5.1 innings. Mayberry missed most of last season after having Tommy John surgery, and he was used out of bullpen until this month. He’s likely to be one of UVa’s starters in the NCAA regional this weekend.
“I was real excited to get the ball again,” Mayberry said. “I have a lot of confidence in the people making plays behind me in the field, so I’m looking forward to next week and then coming weeks with our team.”
O’Connor said he and pitching coach Karl Kuhn wanted to use several pitchers in Virginia’s final tuneup for the NCAA tournament, “to get them some time and some experience.”
Six pitchers got work Saturday: Mayberry, followed by junior Austin Young, freshman Nathan Kirby, freshman Josh Sborz, Crockett and, finally, sophomore Nick Howard, who kept the `Noles off the scoreboard in the top of the 12th.
“It really couldn’t have worked out better,” O’Connor said.
And now comes a 10th straight trip to the NCAA tournament, a streak that coincides with O’Connor’s tenure as UVa’s head coach. Will there be a carryover for the Cavaliers from their play in Durham?
“I think there certainly can be,” O’Connor said. “I don’t think it means everything.”
Virginia has won two ACC titles under O’Connor — in 2009 and ’11 — and in each of those seasons his club reached Omaha, Neb.
“That being said, Florida State last year went 0-3 here and advanced to the College World Series,” O’Connor said. “You can obviously gain some positive feelings about our success that we had here this week, going 2-1, and starting next week have a lot of confidence.”
His players know that UVa played “the whole season to put yourself in the position that we have here and learn and get better, but it comes down to what you do next weekend,” O’Connor said. “And if you’re fortunate to advance, it comes down to what you do the following weekend.”