June 4, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Everywhere you looked during the NCAA baseball tournament’s opening weekend, marquee teams were crashing back to earth.
Of the eight teams named national seeds in the 64-team tourney, only three survived to reach the round of 16: No. 3 Virginia, No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette and No. 7 TCU.
“Being a national seed is only a number right next to your name,” UVa outfielder Derek Fisher said Tuesday morning. “But if you can’t get out of the regional, it means nothing.”
Virginia (47-13) hosts soon-to-be-former ACC rival Maryland (38-21) in a best-of-three series that starts Saturday at noon at sold-out Davenport Field. The Cavaliers are in an NCAA super regional for the fifth time in six seasons, but such teams as No. 1 seed Oregon State, No. 2 seed Florida, No. 4 seed Indiana, No. 5 seed Florida State and No. 8 seed LSU are wondering what went wrong.
“I tell you, the NCAA regional round was pretty amazing,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “It’s a very unique year in the history of college baseball, to have so many 2, 3 and 4 seeds advancing out of regionals. The days of the programs in the Deep South dominating college baseball, and programs in Texas and California, it looks like those days are gone. The parity in college baseball any more is pretty remarkable.”
A lot of people believe if “you’re a national seed or you’re the No. 1 seed, that you should just automatically advance, and it doesn’t work that way,” O’Connor said.
While other powers were struggling, the Wahoos were cruising through the Charlottesville Regional, winning three games in what O’Connor acknowledged “was pretty dominating fashion.”
Virginia pounded Bucknell 10-1, blanked Arkansas 3-0 and then, in the championship game, defeated Arkansas again, 9-2 this time.
“I thought we played some of the best baseball that we’ve played all year this past weekend,” said O’Connor, who guided UVa to the College World Series in 2009 and ’11. “Hopefully that’s something that can continue.”
A season ago, Virginia hosted Mississippi State in a super regional at Davenport Field. The Bulldogs took the series in two games and then, in Omaha, advanced to the College World Series’ championship series before falling to UCLA.
“I think there’s a great lesson in what Mississippi State did coming here last year,” O’Connor said. “I say it all the time, this time of the year it’s about getting hot. It’s about who’s hot. And that [played] out last weekend. It’s not necessarily the powerhouse team or [the team] who’s been there before. It’s a matter of who plays loose and gets after it, and who gets hot. And you can go on to win the national championship if you’re one of those teams that gets hot for four weeks.
“That’s why I feel so good about our team. I thought we played loose and confident and played some of our best baseball last weekend, and hopefully it continues this weekend. I’m sure Maryland feels the same way, because they played some great baseball this last weekend, too.”
The Terrapins, who are in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1971, were seeded No. 2 at the Columbia (S.C.) Regional, from which host South Carolina was expected to emerge victorious. But Maryland opened regional play with a comeback win over Old Dominion and then stunned the Gamecocks twice, first on Saturday and again on Sunday.
South Carolina had won 28 consecutive home games in the NCAA tournament before losing Saturday to Maryland.
Maryland, of course, leaves for the Big Ten this summer. And so the games at Davenport Field this weekend will be the final ones between these schools as ACC foes.
“I think it’s great for our fan interest, the fact it’s us and Maryland one last time before they depart the league,” O’Connor said. “Their head baseball coach, John Szefc, is a very good friend of mine. I’ve known John for a long time. I have the utmost respect for him, so it should be a lot of fun and of great interest to a lot of people.”
The teams are scheduled to meet at noon Saturday and Sunday. If a third game is necessary, it’s scheduled for 4 p.m. Monday, though ESPN could change that time, depending on outcomes at the other super regionals.
GOOD TIMING: Four NCAA super regionals begin Friday, and the other four start Saturday. O’Connor is delighted to be in the second group.
“It gives us complete flexibility of what we want to do with our pitching,” O’Connor said. “It allows us, if we choose to, for Nathan Kirby to start Game 1, and we’ll look at that very closely in the next 24, 48 hours. I think it’s good for us … It just gives us a lot of flexibility and a lot of options.”
Kirby, a sophomore left-hander who last week was named to the Louisville Slugger All-America first team, allowed only one hit in eight innings Saturday against Arkansas.
Another reason O’Connor likes his team’s schedule this weekend: The Major League Baseball draft begins Thursday with rounds 1 and 2 and continues Friday with rounds 3 through 10. (Rounds 11 through 40 are Saturday.)
“The professional draft being tied around the super regional time, it’s challenging, quite frankly,” O’Connor said, “and it’s got to be managed, because you have a lot of guys that are going to go in the draft off this year’s team, and they have aspirations of playing at the next level of baseball, and that’s good for them.
“I’m really glad we were chosen as a Saturday start in the regional, because we will have been bypassed through the first two days of the draft … The great majority of our players will be gone in the draft by then. So then they know what their fate is from the draft standpoint, and they can just go out and play. I think our guys will handle it well like they’ve handled it all year long.”
With the Cavaliers two wins from a trip to Omaha for the College World Series, Fisher said the draft won’t be a distraction to him.
“This week is all about college baseball,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve obviously wished to do my entire life, something that I’ve looked forward to since I’ve been a kid, and to look past that for one day out of the year is something that I’ll never do.”
BREAKING THROUGH: In three games at the Charlottesville Regional, Fisher went 4 for 12 and drove in six runs, and in the finale he was 2 for 4 with 4 RBI.
For a player whose struggles in the NCAA tournament have been well-documented — Fisher was 0 for 15 as a freshman and 2 for 21 as a sophomore — that was a significant accomplishment.
“I’m really proud of Derek Fisher. I really am,” O’Connor said. “I thought he had a very, very good regional for us, and he’s going to need to. Derek’s worked very hard. His progression, his development as a player in our program has gotten better and better every year. I just think when you have experiences like he had his first two years in a regional, not producing with hits, you learn from that experience and you get better.
“I’m just proud of him because he stepped up for this team, and did it when his team was counting on him. There were a lot of people out there wondering, `OK, what’s going to happen this year?’ And he certainly proved what he’s capable of. And I think he’s going to prove what everybody thinks of him Thursday night in the Major League draft. Everybody’s going to see that this kid’s come through and he’s developed into one heck of a player.”
Fisher, who missed 25 games after breaking a bone in his right wrist in early march, is hitting .288 with 23 RBI. He has seven doubles and three home runs.
FAMILIAR FOE: Virginia and Maryland have met only once this season, in the ACC tournament. The Terrapins hit four home runs and held on for a 7-6 victory May 22 in Greensboro, N.C.
That game was played at hitter-friendly NewBridge Bank Park, where the `Hoos also had multiple home runs that day. Fisher had a two-run blast in the second inning, and sophomore Joe McCarthy added a two-run homer in the ninth.
“Certainly this ballpark plays significantly different,” O’Connor said Tuesday at Davenport Field. “But it’s still going to come down to us making our pitches and playing good defense like we did this last weekend.”
For the Cavaliers’ coaching staff, this week won’t be nearly as hectic as last week was, and not simply because the opponent is from the ACC.
“Last weekend you’re going into it preparing for three other ball clubs,” O’Connor said. “You’re doing three different scouting reports. You’re watching 30 different games on video.
“This weekend you can focus and concentrate on one opponent. It allows us as coaches to have a couple extra hours of sleep every night, because it’s not such an intense pressure of preparation and the amount of it. And knowing Maryland, playing them last year, playing them already this year, having an understanding of what their players are and how they play the game, certainly gives us a little bit more time with our families.”
BIG STAGE: Regular-season games, at least involving ACC teams, are rarely televised nationally, but ESPN shows the NCAA tournament on multiple platforms.
ESPN2 is scheduled to broadcast every game of the Charlottesville Super Regional, and such exposure has raised the profile of the Cavaliers, who are in the NCAA tourney for the 11th straight season.
“The way ESPN covers college baseball at the end of the season any more, it certainly shines a bright light on what we’re doing here in Charlottesville,” O’Connor said. “So that can do nothing but help our recruiting, help our fan base.
“But certainly when you get the national exposure like you can on ESPN, it helps our program. You see that we’ve gotten that over the last six years, and it feels like our program has continued to get better and better. So I’m sure there’s some kind of tie-in there.”