June 1, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At 8 p.m. Sunday, UVa will face an opponent it has already defeated once in this NCAA baseball tournament.
Arkansas (39-24) meets Bucknell (31-20-1) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Davenport Field. The loser’s season will be over. The winner will move on to face top-seeded Virginia in what could be the deciding game of the double-elimination Charlottesville Regional.
The Cavaliers, 31-3 at home this season, are exactly where they want to be. Five times previously — in 2007, `09, `10, `11 and ’13 — UVa won its first two games in the NCAA tournament. In four of those seasons (2009, ’10, ’11 and ’13), the Wahoos went on to win the regional.
“We’re in a great position, but you have to go for it tomorrow night,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said Saturday night after his team’s 3-0 victory over second-seeded Arkansas before an amped-up crowd of 4,579.
“Certainly everybody knows the scenario that there could be another game Monday, but you don’t play with that. You try to go for it the first opportunity that you have, and we will do that tomorrow night, whoever our opponent is.”
Sophomore left-hander Brandon Waddell (7-3, 2.73 ERA) will start Sunday night for the `Hoos (46-13), who opened the tournament Friday afternoon with a 10-1 victory over fourth-seeded Bucknell. If Waddell is anywhere near as effective as his classmate Nathan Kirby was Saturday night, Virginia stands a strong chance of avoiding a winner-take-all game Monday night.
“That was one of the more complete ball games that we’ve played all year,” O’Connor said. “What we did offensively in the first three innings, I was just really impressed. Our guys were locked in and certainly up there taking good swings and battling. And then Nathan Kirby again showed how great of a pitcher he is.”
Kirby, who last week was named a Louisville Slugger first-team All-American, allowed only one hit in eight innings against the Razorbacks. The 6-2, 185-pound left-hander struck out nine and walked two.
“He just pitched a great game,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “We didn’t have an answer for it.”
Kirby, who lowered his earned-run average to 1.36, retired the last 12 batters he faced. He struck out the final five.
“We had one shot at him,” Van Horn said.
That was in the top of the fifth inning, when a leadoff double and then a throwing error by Kirby gave the Razorbacks, who trailed 3-0, runners on second and third with none out. Kirby wasn’t fazed. He retired the next three batters — Bobby Wernes, Jake Wise and Michael Bernal — and wasn’t threatened again.
“He gets the big strikeout, he gets the lineout, he gets the third out, and he’s out of the inning,” O’Connor said. “Those are defining moments in a game that decide whether you win or lose. Because the team in the other dugout’s really good, too, and they want to win, too.”
Kirby said: “That was big for me. I got on my heels a little bit, but we’ve played defense well all year, and that’s kind of a level of comfort for me out there, on the mound, knowing that I could throw the ball and let them hit it.”
On this night, he didn’t need much run support. The Cavaliers totaled nine hits, the biggest of which was junior first baseman Mike Papi’s two-run home run into the right-field bleachers in the bottom of the first inning.
“That was supposed to be a fastball inside, and that was my mistake,” Arkansas starter Trey Killian said. “I didn’t get it in there.”
The homer was Papi’s team-leading 11th of the season. When the ball came off his bat, Papi said, he wasn’t sure it would leave the park, and he didn’t watch the right-fielder.
“I was just out of the box running hard,” Papi said. “It was hit high enough that I thought it had a chance, and it ended up going out.”
Virginia scored its final run in the third, when Kenny Towns singled in Papi from third. Killian left the game with one out in the fourth after developing a blister on his throwing hand, but his replacement, 6-3, 230-pound Dominic Taccolini, gave the Cavaliers more problems.
Still, with Kirby in fine form, three runs were plenty in the first game between these teams since the 2009 College World Series.
“I felt good tonight,” Kirby said, and so did his head coach.
“Certainly he had his great stuff tonight,” O’Connor said. “He had that kind of stuff last weekend against Florida State in the ACC tournament. We just decided to take him out after 68 pitches [versus FSU]. I felt good [Saturday night]. He was throwing strikes, he was executing what we asked him to do. He was pitching like a No. 1 starter at this level of baseball does.”
Kirby would have happily returned to the mound in the ninth inning, but O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn opted to use another All-American, closer Nick Howard. After giving up a leadoff single, the 6-4, 215-pound junior got Joe Serrano to hit into a double play and then retired Andrew Benintendi on a grounder.
The save was Howard’s school-record 19th of the season. That ties the ACC single-season mark.
“Nathan was just shy of 100 pitches, and he had done his job,” O’Connor said. “That’s Nick Howard’s role. It was a save opportunity. And tomorrow night, and moving on past that if we’re fortunate to, we need to count on Nick Howard.”
The NCAA tournament began Friday, and already two of the top eight national seeds — No. 2 Florida and No. 5 Florida State — have been ousted. Two others, No. 1 Oregon State and No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette, will play in elimination games Sunday.
“When you’re in an NCAA regional like this, certainly there’s pressure,” O’Connor said. “There’s pressure on every team out there, because it’s the end of the season, and you either win and advance, or you don’t. This team has been in a pressure situation from the first day of the season. So they’ve learned how to handle it throughout the entire year, and maybe that has a little bit of something to do with the success that we’ve had in these two ball games.”
Virginia has advanced to the NCAA tournament in each of O’Connor’s 11 seasons as head coach. UVa, which began the season ranked No. 1 in several polls, is hosting a regional for the fifth straight year.
His players, O’Connor noted, “know what it’s like to have those expectations. Everybody believes that because you’re hosting you’re the team that should advance on, and you’re seeing across college baseball, yesterday and today, that that is not necessarily the case. There’s a lot of great teams out there, and the difference between winning and losing is so small.”