By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — There was a time in Brian O’Connor’s tenure as UVa’s baseball coach when simply making the NCAA baseball tournament was cause for celebration in the Cavaliers’ clubhouse and among their fans.
Somewhere along the way, after O’Connor’s program became a model of sustained success, expectations changed. Fairly or not, each UVa team is now judged, to some degree, on whether it advances to an NCAA super regional and then the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
And that’s unfortunate, O’Connor said Sunday night at Davenport Field, because “I think sometimes players 17 to 22, 23 years old can put entirely too much pressure on themselves. But that comes with the territory. When you build a program like we have — you have 5,000 people in the stadium that want to win, the players want to win, the coaches want to win — there’s a lot of pressure, and that has come with the success that we’ve had.”
There’s no end in sight to the Cavaliers’ extraordinary run under O’Connor, whose record in 10 seasons is 461-159-2. With an 11-3 rout of Elon on Sunday night, Virginia completed a three-game sweep through the NCAA tournament’s Charlottesville regional and advanced to a super regional for the fourth time in five seasons.
The Wahoos also reached the 50-victory mark for the third time in four seasons.
“Expectations are huge here,” O’Connor said. “That’s fine. We welcome it. We don’t hide from it. I think it’s a sign that we’ve done some really good things.”
Virginia (50-10), the No. 6 seed in the 64-team NCAA tournament, won’t know until late Monday night which team is coming to Charlottesville for a best-of-three super regional next weekend.
Mississippi State and Central Arkansas meet at 8 p.m. Monday in the championship game of the Starkville, Miss., regional. The winner will face a UVa team that this weekend showed it can win in a variety of ways.
Pitching and defense carried the Cavaliers on Friday afternoon, when they edged Army 2-1, and again on Saturday night, when they slipped past Elon 2-0. Virginia’s slumbering bats awoke Sunday night. Led by sophomore shortstop Nick Howard (4 for 5), UVa pounded out 14 hits against a tired Elon team that had defeated UNC Wilmington 6-4 in an elimination game that afternoon.
“Guys just stepped up,” O’Connor said. “I knew it was going to happen at some point. This offensive team is too good and too talented to be held down, and certainly tonight we showed that.”
Especially encouraging for UVa were the performances of fifth-year senior Jared King and sophomore Derek Fisher, each of whom went 2 for 5. King entered the game on a 1-for-19 slump in the NCAA tournament, dating to last season. Fisher was 0 for 22 in the NCAAs.
Neither broke through in his first at-bat Sunday night, but in the third inning King ripped an RBI double into left field. Three batters later, Fisher came up with the bases loaded.
“It was obviously a situation I’d been in virtually all weekend,” Fisher said. “I was up with runners in scoring position, I couldn’t tell you how many times. So to actually come through in the clutch for our club at that point in time [felt great].”
Fisher hit a fastball from Elon starter Nate Young through the right side of the infield, and two runs scored to pull Virginia to 3-3. By the time the inning ended, the `Hoos led 6-3.
“So I just knew it was a matter of time before a lot of those guys broke out. They’ve worked too hard to put themselves in this position. They want it too much for it not to go their way, and I think Derek put it really well: If you just stick with what you’ve done and don’t try to change much, good things are going to happen.”
King added a single in the fourth, as did Fisher. In the eighth, Fisher crushed a fastball to deep right field. It was caught near the wall, but the blast was a reminder of the power for which Fisher has become known at UVa.
“Derek Fisher as a hitter is so gifted,” O’Connor said. “If he just sticks with it and has confidence in himself, it’s just a matter of time before he has a monster game and back-to-back monster games.”
Cleanup hitter Brandon Downes went 2 for 4 and scored three runs for UVa, and as usual, the back half of the order distinguished itself. Howard, Kenny Towns and Nate Irving — all sophomores — bat 7, 8 and 9, respectively, and they were a combined 6 for 12 on Sunday night.
In the regional, Howard hit .462 with two RBI, Irving hit .400 with two RBI, and Towns hit .333 with four RBI.
“That just goes to show great our team is, 1 through 9,” Howard said. “On any given night it can be anybody who gets a clutch hit or clutch at-bat.”
O’Connor said: “That’s what takes you from a good offensive club to a great offensive club, when you have an ability to score runs and drive in runs from the bottom of your lineup, too. The really good offensive clubs that we have had here, we’ve had that.”
Whit Mayberry, a redshirt junior right-hander, started on the mound for UVa. He never looked comfortable Sunday night. Mayberry gave up a two-run home run to slugger Ryan Kinsella in the first inning and an RBI double to Casey Jones in the third.
After that inning, O’Connor said, he conferred with pitching coach Karl Kuhn. Both of them love Mayberry, O’Connor said, but “the right decision to do at that time was to change the momentum of the game and get a different guy in there. That was Coach Kuhn’s suggestion to do that, and I’ve got to give him a ton of credit. He was emphatic about making that move, and fortunately it worked.”
The Phoenix (34-30) has struggled against left-handed pitching all season, but that wasn’t the main reason Kuhn chose to pull Mayberry after three innings, O’Connor said.
“It was just that Whit Mayberry was not hitting his spots tonight like he typically does,” O’Connor said, “and we needed to get somebody out there that could change speeds a little bit and hit their locations.”
That pitcher was freshman left-hander David Rosenberger, who delivered the performance of his young college career. Rosenberger struck out four in five innings — both highs for him as a Cavalier — and faced only 15 batters. (Elon twice hit into double plays with Rosenberger on the mound.)
“I’m just excited I got the opportunity,” Rosenberger said, “and I’m glad that I pitched well, and hopefully it continues through the next weekend and super regionals.”
How long Rosenberger stayed in the game, O’Connor said, was going “to be dictated by how he was throwing, and certainly he was in complete command of the game. We just kind of rode the hot hand, quite frankly. He continued to go out there and get the job done and get outs and get ground balls, and we stayed with him.”
Junior left-hander Kyle Crockett, who was named the regional’s most outstanding player, led a UVa bullpen that did not allow a run all weekend. Crockett struck out the side in the ninth inning against Army on Friday and again against Elon on Saturday.
“Our starters have done a really nice job, a solid job, all year long,” O’Connor said, “but from a pitching standpoint, the bullpen has been what has really driven us to have the kind of a record that we have had, and it’s going to continue to have to be that way. We’re going to need to get solid starts to keep us in the ball game in the first half of the ball game, and then our bullpen’s going to have to do to the job.”
From a team that finished 39-19-1 last year after losing two of three games in an NCAA regional at Davenport Field, UVa had to replace such mainstays as Branden Kline, Shane Halley, Justin Thompson, Stephen Bruno, Chris Taylor and Keith Werman. Moreover, one of Virginia’s weekend starters in 2012, Artie Lewicki, had Tommy John surgery last summer and hasn’t been in the rotation this year.
In most preseason polls this year, UVa was not ranked. No matter. “This group of guys, we knew within the clubhouse how good we could be,” Howard said. “We knew what we were capable of, and we just needed to go out and show it.”
That’s exactly what the Cavaliers did, reaching the NCAA tournament for the 10th straight season. “The consistency part of it is so important,” O’Connor said.
Sophomores dominate UVa’s lineup, and much was made before the season, O’Connor noted, of the team’s “so-called youth and inexperience … But you think about all those players. They all played in this regional last year in this ballpark, so they’ve had this experience. And that experience they had last year in hosting a regional, I firmly believe it had a lot to do with us winning this regional championship.”
And now the `Hoos find themselves two victories from a third trip to the College World Series.
“We’re looking forward to baseball here in Charlottesville again next weekend,” O’Connor said.
TICKET INFORMATION: Ticket books for next weekend’s best-of-three NCAA super regional are on sale now. The series is expected to sell out and fans are encouraged to order their tickets as soon as possible to guarantee admission.
Reserved seating ticket books are $36 each, and general admission ticket books are $24. The super regional will be held Friday (June 7) through Sunday (June 9) or Saturday (June 8) through next Monday (June 10).
The NCAA is expected to announce the game dates and times at approximately 11 o’clock tonight. Virginia will host the winner of tonight’s regional championship game between Mississippi State and Central Arkansas in Starkville, Miss.