By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — His players will wake up Sunday morning knowing their season could end that night. UVa coach Brian O’Connor doesn’t want them dwelling on that fact. He wants them to focus on playing the brand of baseball that earned them the No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament.
That Virginia team did not show up Saturday on a warm, sunny afternoon at Davenport Field. In the first game of its best-of-three NCAA super regional with Mississippi State, UVa committed four errors and allowed 20 hits — both season highs — in an 11-6 loss before a sellout crowd of 4,956.
The Cavaliers (50-11) meet MSU (47-18) again at 7 p.m. Sunday. A UVa victory would force a decisive third game Monday at 4 p.m. A victory by the Bulldogs would send them to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
“We just gotta be better tomorrow,” O’Connor said Saturday. “We have to be better at executing our pitches, we have to be better at handling the baseball. The things that we’ve done all year that have gotten us to this point, we’ve got to be better at.”
The Wahoos lost only two series during the regular season, dropping two of three games at Georgia Tech in mid-April and two of three at Virginia Tech late that month.
“Thankfully it’s a series,” O’Connor said of the super regional. “Either way you have to win two ballgames to win this thing, and our players have done a nice job all year long of handling adversity and bouncing back after difficult losses. Certainly this is a difficult loss, but this is why the game of baseball is so great: You have another chance tomorrow.”
Scott Silverstein, a 6-6 left-hander whom the Toronto Blue Jays picked Saturday in the 25th round of the Major League Baseball draft, will start for the `Hoos in Game 2. The fifth-year senior from Olney, Md., is 10-1 with a 2.87 earned-run average.
Virginia used five pitchers Saturday afternoon, all freshmen. Starter Brandon Waddell, who lasted 3.1 innings, took the loss. Among the Cavaliers who didn’t take the mound were Austin Young, Whit Mayberry and All-ACC reliever Kyle Crockett, a fourth-round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians.
“We need for Scott to give us a quality start tomorrow night, and that’s where it’s going to start,” O’Connor said. “We didn’t get that today out of Brandon, and we need that tomorrow. Our bullpen will be fine. Anybody we used today would be available again if we got to Monday, and we’ve got guys that we haven’t used yet.”
Mississippi State junior Adam Frazier opened the game Saturday with a single off Waddell, a sign of things to come. Frazier, a sixth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday, went 6 for 6 with three RBI and also distinguished himself at shortstop Saturday.
“I think I had two five-hit games in high school,” Frazier said, “but never six [hits].”
Nearly as brilliant Saturday was Mississippi State slugger Hunter Renfroe, a junior who went 4 for 5 with three RBI. The San Diego Padres drafted Renfroe with the 13th pick of the first round Thursday night.
“The big boys have showed up,” ESPN analyst Ben McDonald said in the seventh inning after Renfroe collected his fourth hit.
MSU’s offensive approach was as effective as any Virginia has faced this season, O’Connor said. “To come in this ballpark and get 20 hits is pretty impressive. I don’t know that anybody’s done that in quite some time, and that’s a testament to their players.
“Frazier obviously had a huge day. To come in here in a super regional and have six hits is pretty impressive. He’s a very, very talented player, and obviously Renfroe came up with some big key hits, too.”
The Bulldogs capitalized on Virginia’s first error to score two runs in the first inning. The damage could have been worse for Waddell, though, and when he went back to the mound in the second, the Cavaliers were up 3-2.
Sophomore Mike Papi had led off the bottom of the first by belting a home run into the right-field bleachers. Virginia pulled to 2-2 when fifth-year senior Jared King, who had doubled, came home on sophomore Derek Fisher’s infield grounder. The Cavaliers then went ahead 3-2 on an RBI single by senior Reed Gragnani, whom the Boston Red Sox selected in the 21st round Saturday.
That lead did not last long. In the top of the third, MSU scored two runs, thanks in part to another UVa error, to go ahead for good. The Cavaliers’ third error, in the top of the fifth, helped the Bulldogs stretch their lead to 8-4. Virginia’s final error, in the sixth, allowed Frazier to come to the plate that inning, and he delivered a two-run double that made it 10-4.
“We take pride in handling the baseball a lot better than we did today,” O’Connor said. “Some things happened. We know that we can’t do those things this time of year.”
One of UVa’s errors came on a safety squeeze in the top of the third. With Renfroe on third, C.T. Bradford laid down a bunt that Waddell tried to field. Waddell fumbled the ball, and Renfroe scored to tie the game. Demarcus Henderson followed with a sacrifice fly that made it 4-3.
“It’s just part of the game,” Waddell said after his second-shortest appearance of the season. “I went to field it, and the ball slipped through my hand. Mistakes are going to happen during the game. It’s how you bounce back from that and [come] together as a team.”
Gragnani, sophomore Nick Howard (who was stung by a bee early in the game) and ACC freshman of the year Joe McCarthy had two hits apiece for UVa. The Cavaliers had 11 hits in all — nine off MSU starter Kendall Graveman — but failed to fully capitalize on their offensive production.
In the sixth, Ross Mitchell, one of the stars of MSU’s exceptional bullpen, replaced Graveman with one out and the bases loaded. He promptly walked Papi on four pitches, making it 10-6. But Mitchell then induced King to hit into an inning-ending double play.
The `Hoos hit into double plays to end the seventh and eight innings, too.
“That’s baseball,” Howard said. “We just lacked that clutch hit today. We had a good approach. We just couldn’t get it done.”
O’Connor said: “We just couldn’t get that extra hit to extend those innings, and those are the hits today that Mississippi State got, to their credit.”
Little came easily for Virginia against the Bulldogs. “They’re tough,” O’Connor said. “They look like the kind of ballclub to me that [is] not going to give any outs away. It’s a mentality that we take pride in offensively, too. They just did a much better job of executing it today, and their pitchers overall did a much better job than we did today.”
And so the Cavaliers must regroup and get ready for the most important game they will have played in a season that began Feb. 15. O’Connor’s players know UVa must win two straight at Davenport Field to advance to Omaha for the third time in five seasons, but they’re trying not to think about the big picture.
“We can only win one baseball game tomorrow,” Howard said, “and that’s what our goal’s gonna be.”
Papi said: “We’ve kept the same approach as a team the whole year, no matter what the situation was, so we’re just going to come out and do what we do.”