June 11, 2013

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Heading into the NCAA super regional at Davenport Field, the UVa baseball team had come from behind to win 23 times this season. In three of those games, the Cavaliers had trailed by at least two runs in the ninth inning.

And so Virginia players, coaches and fans never lost hope Monday afternoon, even with Mississippi State up three runs and three outs away from a trip to the College World Series.

The Wahoos’ faith was nearly rewarded in game that had started Sunday night and then been suspended in the bottom of the seventh inning because of thunderstorms.

With runners on second and third and UVa’s deficit down to a single run, sophomore Derek Fisher stepped to the plate with two outs. A hit would have forced Mississippi State — the home team in this game — to bat in the bottom of the ninth. Alas for the `Hoos, their reservoir of magical finishes was dry. Fisher’s grounder went directly to third baseman Alex Detz, who threw to first for the final out, and a magnificent Virginia season was over, ended by a 6-5 loss.

The Bulldogs mobbed each other in the infield, a long-awaited dogpile for a team headed back to Omaha, Neb., for the first time since 2007.

The `Hoos walked slowly and numbly off the field on which, until going 0 for 2 in this super regional, they had not lost back-to-back games all season. Virginia, which was seeded No. 6 in the 64-team NCAA tournament, finished with 50 victories — the third most in program history — and only 12 losses in Brian O’Connor’s 10th season as head coach.

“Obviously it’s a very, very difficult loss and we’re disappointed and wish we’d have had another chance to play,” O’Connor said.

“It’s real difficult. I don’t want to ever say that I’m disappointed in a team. I’m not disappointed in this ball club at all. But it’s frustrating. This can happen. We’ve been in this scenario before that we haven’t played our best baseball, and that’s typically what happens with a team that doesn’t advance on: They don’t play up to what their capability is. That is no disrespect to Mississippi State. Part of the reason we didn’t play well is because of Mississippi State.”

Had the Cavaliers rallied to win Monday afternoon, the teams would have met in a winner-take-all third game that night, weather permitting.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t really go our way at the end, but I think this team has to hold its head high no matter what,” said catcher Nate Irving, one of seven sophomores to start at least 47 games for UVa this season.

“We did some really amazing things this year. I think that last inning was kind of [emblematic] of how our year has gone all year. We’ve never backed down from a fight. We’ve never backed down from a challenge, and that’s something going forward that we’ll always be able to carry with us, and that’s something that this program prides itself on and we take pride in.”

Mississippi State won the first game of this best-of-three series 11-6 on Saturday afternoon. When the teams met against Sunday night, fifth-year senior Scott Silverstein started on the mound for UVa. The 6-6 left-hander gave up five runs — four of them earned — before giving way to junior Kyle Crockett with one out in the fourth.

In part, perhaps, because of a 22-minute rain delay in the bottom of the second inning, Silverstein wasn’t as sharp Saturday as in most of his starts this season. Silverstein, whom the Toronto Blue Jays selected in the 25th round of the Major League draft Saturday, choked up during the Cavaliers’ postgame press conference Monday afternoon and later, still in his uniform, walked back to the mound at Davenport one final time, a solitary figure in the rain.

“It breaks my heart to see him go out that way, not at his best,” O’Connor said, “but that’s the game, and fortunately that young man’s going to have an opportunity to continue to pitch.”

Silverstein overcame two major shoulder operations to pitch at Virginia. Monday night on Twitter, he posted, “No tweet can describe how proud I am to have spent the last five years of my life as a Cavalier. I would do it all again.”

The Bulldogs led 5-3 when play was stopped at 10:02 Sunday night. Sophomore center-fielder Brandon Downes’ home run in the second put the `Hoos up 1-0 in Game 2, but Mississippi State scored the next five runs. Two came on an epic homer by 6-5, 272-pound Wes Rea, whose third-inning shot sailed into the trees behind the left-field bleachers.

The Cavaliers closed to 5-3 in the sixth on a two-run double by Irving, but otherwise had little success against reliever Chad Girodo, a ninth-round draft pick of the Blue Jays. The senior left-hander struck out 10 in 4.2 innings before inclement weather halted the proceedings Sunday night.

Six outs from victory, MSU gave the ball Monday to its exceptional closer, sophomore right-hander Jonathan Holder, who entered with an earned-run average of 1.17. Crockett, who threw 44 pitches on Sunday night, was back on the mound for UVa when the game resumed Monday at 4:05 p.m.

“I always want the ball,” Crockett, a fourth-round draft choice of the Cleveland Indians, said after what might well have been his final appearance for Virginia. “If I can go, then I’m going to go.”

O’Connor said he didn’t hesitate to use Crockett again, and the All-ACC reliever delivered as he has all season. An error in the bottom of the seventh — the first of the season by freshman right-fielder Joe McCarthy, UVa’s third of the game and seventh of the super regional — helped the Bulldogs stretch their lead to 6-3, but Crockett retired the side in order in the eighth.

Had Virginia forced MSU to bat in the bottom of the ninth, O’Connor said, Crockett would not have pitched. Sophomore Nick Howard would have gone to the mound, with classmate Branden Cogswell replacing Howard at shortstop.

The Cavaliers’ starting shortstop most of the season, Cogswell was hitting .346 when he fractured the middle finger on his throwing hand in practice May 4, an injury that required surgery. He missed the final seven games of the regular season, the ACC tournament, and the NCAA regional at Davenport Field.

Cogswell was cleared to play in the super regional but never got off the bench.

“I made the decision not to play him,” O’Connor said, “because it had been five or six weeks since this kid had had a live at-bat. He just started taking live at-bats in the middle of this week, and that’s a long period of time to not see live pitches.”

Also, O’Connor said, after watching Cogswell “take groundballs and throw across the infield, I was not 100-percent convinced that it would be consistent from a throwing standpoint [in a game] … I know the kid’s disappointed that I didn’t put him in there, but I just had to go on what I’d seen the last five weeks, and we had played some pretty good baseball over the last five weeks.”

When the game ended Monday afternoon, the home fans stood and raised a familiar chant for the final time this season: “U-V-A! U-V-A!” The Cavaliers would not be advancing to Omaha for the third time in five seasons, but a team left out of most preseason Top 25 polls had much to be proud of.

Only three seniors played major roles for Virginia this season: Silverstein, first baseman Jared King and second baseman Reed Gragnani. Of the Cavaliers’ weekend starters on the mound, one (Brandon Waddell) was a freshman and another (Silverstein) was coming off a 2-5 season.

When this team convened for the first time at the start of the school year, O’Connor was asked Monday, did he believe it could win 50 games?

“I felt like we had the talent,” O’Connor said. “I really did. You look at our position players in our lineup this year and the kind of offensive output that we had this year. I felt that we could be a team that could be in this position certainly, provided our pitching worked out. That was the big unknown for me. How was Scott Silverstein going to be? And he answered the bell. How was it going to be with Brandon Waddell starting on Fridays as a true freshman? And he answered the bell all season.”

The bullpen, led by Crockett, pitched brilliantly.

“So everything from the pitching scenario worked out for us,” O’Connor said. “That’s what put us in this point. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out long enough. You cannot win this time of the year unless you pitch and play good defense, and we didn’t do that. That’s not a knock on our pitching staff or anything. We just didn’t do it. Again, the reason we didn’t do it was because of Mississippi State. Their offensive game plan was tremendous. They covered the plate. They were on pitches that typically we have seen guys swing and miss at … You just felt like in the two-game series you couldn’t get `em out.”

Of the top eight seeds in the NCAA tournament, no more than three will make it to Omaha. It’s difficult to reach a super regional, O’Connor said, “and even more difficult to advance on. When you get to this point … it’s about getting hot and it’s about getting pitching and playing defense. And we just were not that hot team.”

Nobody will be surprised if the `Hoos are that hot team in 2014. Among the position players expected back are Cogswell, McCarthy, Fisher, Downes, Howard, Irving, Mike Papi and Kenny Towns, plus pitchers Waddell, Whit Mayberry, Josh Sborz, Nathan Kirby, Austin Young, Trey Oest and Artie Lewicki. A weekend starter in 2012, Lewicki had Tommy John surgery last summer and made only two appearances this season.

“This program’s here,” O’Connor said, “and this program’s here to stay. We look forward to the next opportunity that we’re in this situation.”

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