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May 30, 2014

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The UVa baseball team plays its second game in this NCAA tournament Saturday night at Davenport Field. The Cavaliers can expect more resistance than they encountered Friday afternoon.

In the opening game of the four-team Charlottesville Regional, fourth-seeded Bucknell self-destructed, and top-seeded Virginia fully capitalized on its opponent’s mistakes.

The Bison made four errors, and the Wahoos romped 10-1 before a crowd of 3,569 at Davenport Field, home to an NCAA regional for the fifth straight season. Nine of UVa’s runs were unearned.

“Certainly the story of the game was infield defense,” Bucknell coach Scott Heather said. “The disappointing part of it was none of them were very difficult plays. All were plays that we’ve made all year. I think nerves got the better of us early. We played young a little bit there.”

The Cavaliers (45-13), seeded No. 3 overall in the NCAA tourney, played like the postseason veterans they are. And so they moved into the winners’ bracket, where they will face Arkansas (39-23) at 8 p.m. Saturday.

Sophomore left-hander Nathan Kirby, who was named to the Louisville Slugger All-America first team Thursday, will start on the mound for the `Hoos. Kirby is 8-1 this season with a 1.48 earned-run average.

In the regional’s second game, second-seeded Arkansas edged third-seeded Liberty 3-2 on Friday night. Bucknell (30-20-1) and Liberty (41-17) will meet in an elimination game at 2 p.m. Saturday.

The `Hoos entered the double-elimination regional having lost four of its previous six games, including two of three at the ACC tournament, and they didn’t look especially sharp early. Senior right-hander Artie Lewicki, who had issued only seven walks all season, walked two of the first four Bucknell batters he faced.

“He was trying to nibble a little too much, just trying to be a little too careful,” Virginia catcher Nate Irving said. “And in a game like this, especially in an NCAA tournament game with a really good team on the other side, all you can do is be aggressive. All you can do is put yourself out there and put your best stuff out there, and the results will take care of themselves.”

With runners on first and second and two outs, Lewicki retired Rob Krentzman on a grounder, and the Cavaliers escaped unscathed. From there, Lewicki rarely faltered. He struck out the side in the second and retired the Bison in order in the third, too.

“It was certainly a missed opportunity there for us [in the first],” Heather said, “but he was pretty tough after that. I think he settled in. It seemed like he was throwing harder after the first inning and made a lot of good pitches.”

Pitching coach Karl Kuhn‘s visit to the mound in the first helped Lewicki return to form. So did conversations between innings with Kuhn and head coach Brian O’Connor.

Kuhn’s message?

“He said that he was going to take me off his Christmas card list if I didn’t go out and start competing and going after the hitters,” Lewicki said, smiling. “So I think afterwards I just started to let it rip and challenge batters, and it worked out well.”

O’Connor said: “I’d be misleading you if I didn’t tell you I was a little concerned during that first inning. But I know what Artie’s made of, and I knew that he’d come back, and I just went down and told him after the first inning, `Hey, no matter what happens, just let it rip.’ “

Lewicki worked seven scoreless innings, striking out five and allowing only three hits, to improve his record to 6-1.

“That’s what needed in Game 1: We needed our starter to go out there and pitch deep into the game, which he certainly did,” O’Connor said.

Lewicki said: “There weren’t any nerves [in the first inning]. I think I was just trying to nibble a little too much. I felt OK. I treated it like it was every other game. I just wanted to go out and give my team the best opportunity to win, and I think after the first inning I was able to do that.”

Connor Jones pitched the eighth for Virginia, allowing a run on a bases-loaded wild pitch. Another freshman right-hander struck out the side in the ninth to seal the Cavaliers’ victory.

“I thought Alec Bettinger was tremendous,” O’Connor said. “He could certainly factor in [again] at some point in this tournament.”

Bucknell committed an error in each of the first three innings, and each one led to a UVa run. It was still 3-0 when the Cavaliers came to the plate in the bottom of the sixth. By the time the Bison recorded the third out to end the inning, sophomore John La Prise had singled twice, and the `Hoos had scored seven runs.

A throwing error by Bucknell in the sixth let the first two of those runs in. That “allowed [the Cavaliers] to relax a little bit,” Heather said, “and they started to swing the bats pretty well and really put it away.”

Led by La Prise (3 for 4) and junior Mike Papi (3 for 5), Virginia totaled 11 hits. Their offensive output did not surprise the Cavaliers.

“The past three practices this week our offense was hitting extremely well,” Papi said, “and we were looking forward to coming into a game from the ACC [tournament] and being able to show what our offense can really do.”

O’Connor said: “It was the best week of practice we’ve had all year. It really was. The intensity was good, the competitiveness was good.”

In intrasquad scrimmages, O’Connor said, UVa’s pitchers often dominate, but “that was not the case this week. [The hitters] looked like a group that was very determined and understood what it was going to take for us to be successful.”

Virginia’s leadoff batter reached in each of the first seven innings. A sacrifice-bunt attempt usually followed.

“You all were probably wondering, after the first four or five innings or so, if we were trying to set a record for sacrifice bunts in an NCAA game,” O’Connor said, smiling. “Not quite sure what the record is, but we were going for it.”

The tactic paid dividends, in part because of Bucknell’s inability to defend the bunt.

“We’ve seen a lot of bunts,” starting pitcher Bryson Hough said. “We practice it a lot, too. It’s not that we weren’t prepared. We just didn’t execute.”

Irving successfully executed a sacrifice bunt in the second and again in the fourth. In the sixth, another bunt attempt by Irving resulted in the throwing error that broke the game open.

“It’s something that we do in practice every week,” Irving said. “It’s part of who we are as a team offensively. It’s part of what we do, and we take a lot of pride in it. Every guy in that locker room takes a lot of pride in getting a bunt down to move a teammate over, or putting the hit-and-run in play and scoring a guy from third.”

O’Connor said: “I just think it speaks to the commitment that these players have to the team and what it takes for us to be successful. We don’t always play that way. We have a fair amount of sacrifice bunts, certainly an inordinate amount today, but I think it speaks to the young men in our lineup that wear our uniform, that they put the team in front of themselves.

“They’re human. Everybody wants to swing away. But they understand what we need to do to be successful.”

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