June 7, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, the University of Virginia baseball program finds itself in an unenviable but not unfamiliar position.
In 2009, in Oxford, Miss., UVa dropped the opener of a best-of-three super regional, then rebounded to defeat Ole Miss twice and advance for the first time to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
In 2013, in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers lost the first game of their super regional with Mississippi State. They lost the second game, too, and so fell short of a third trip to Omaha in five seasons.
In front of a sellout crowd at Davenport Field, Virginia opened its latest super regional Saturday afternoon with a 5-4 loss to Maryland. As much as the defeat stung the Wahoos, the highest-seed team remaining in the NCAA tournament, they know that Sunday brings another opportunity for them.
“That’s why it’s a best two out of three,” UVa coach Brian O’Connor said Saturday at his postgame press conference.
The `Hoos (47-14) and the Terrapins (40-21) meet at noon Sunday in a game ESPN2 will televise. Sophomore left-hander Brandon Waddell (8-3, 2.73 ERA) will start for Virginia, which is 32-4 at home this season.
“It’s really difficult to win this time of year unless you get a quality start, somebody that can pitch you into the sixth or seventh inning,” O’Connor said. “I know Waddell’s capable of doing that.”
If necessary, a third game would be played Monday at 4 p.m. and be shown on ESPN2. (The starting time could change, depending on results from other super regionals.)
“I just told the players: Tomorrow’s a new day,” O’Connor said Saturday. “They’ve earned the right to be in this position, to have a chance to be playing tomorrow in a super regional, and to come out and give it their best, and hopefully the results are good.”
Virginia had every reason to be confident heading into the opener. Starting on the mound for the Cavaliers was sophomore left-hander Nathan Kirby, who last week was named to the Louisville Slugger All-America first team.
But Kirby struggled immediately — Maryland junior Charlie White led off the game with a double and scored two batters later — and rarely resembled the pitcher who shut down Arkansas in the Charlottesville Regional last weekend.
“I think it was just their day to hit,” Kirby said when asked about the Terps’ approach at the plate. “I left a couple pitches up, and they hit `em.”
In 4.2 innings, his shortest appearance of the season, Kirby allowed seven hits and five runs and struck out only two Saturday. He came in with a 9-1 record and 1.36 earned-run average and had not surrendered more than three runs in a game this season.
“He just didn’t look sharp to me out there,” O’Connor said. “I didn’t think he looked real sharp even in the first and second inning. Usually his velocity’s a little better. Usually that breaking ball’s down a little bit more, but that’s to Maryland’s credit. I thought that when he made pitches that were up in the zone, they capitalized on it and did a great job. And that’s what you want your offensive team to do.
“It’s disappointing. He’s been our No. 1 all year. He’s been as consistent as you can be, but this is why it’s a team. Whit Mayberry comes in and picks him up, and other guys will tomorrow. Maybe this is how it needs to go.”
A fifth-year senior, Mayberry pitched brilliantly after replacing Kirby in the fifth with the `Hoos trailing 5-2. Mayberry scattered three hits, walked none and struck out six in a game in which he was drafted while on the mound in the eighth inning.
The Tigers picked him 640th overall, in the 21st round.
“Whit did a great job,” UVa junior Mike Papi said. “When you can have a relief pitcher like Whit come out of the bullpen and keep us in the game and hold them to no runs, it’s huge to give us the opportunity to come back and win the game.”
Alas for the Cavaliers, they failed to fully capitalize on Mayberry’s gem. Only two players had multiple hits for Virginia: Papi, who was 3 for 3, and classmate Brandon Downes, who was 2 for 4, with two doubles. On an afternoon when they left 14 on base, the `Hoos were 2 for 14 with runners in scoring position.
“Sometimes it comes down to a ball falling, a ball finding some grass out there,” O’Connor said. “There were a lot of innings where we scored a run and had more runners on and guys squared the ball up. Joe McCarthy, there in the eighth inning, he squared that ball up. Unfortunately, it was right at the right fielder.
“There were other opportunities where I thought that our guys put good swings on the ball. I thought our offensive approach was pretty darn good today. But that’s baseball. That happens. It just didn’t drop.”
Maryland’s ace, Jake Stinnett, gave up six hits and three runs in six innings. He wasn’t dominant, but the senior right-hander was good enough to help the Terps prevail in their first-ever super regional game.
“We got a lot of traffic on the bases today, which was good against such a good pitcher as Stinnett,” Papi said, “but we just couldn’t come up with that big two-out hit a few times. And leaving 14 guys on is really going to hurt us if we want to win a good ball game or beat a good team like Maryland.”
Only once in nine innings — in the seventh — did UVa’s leadoff batter reach base. Still, as O’Connor noted, the Cavaliers had numerous opportunities to do damage offensively, none better than the one they squandered in the first inning.
With the score 1-1, junior Kenny Towns came to the plate with one out and the bases loaded — Derek Fisher was on first, Joe McCarthy on second and Papi on third — and smacked a fly ball into right-center field.
Had the ball gotten past the Terrapins’ center-fielder, White, at least two Virginia runs would have scored, and maybe three. But White made a spectacular diving catch, scrambled to his feet and then fired the ball to shortstop Blake Schmit.
Even so, Papi should have easily scored from third after tagging up. But after starting for home, he returned to the bag before heading back toward the plate.
“I believed that I had left the bag early, so just to reassure myself I went back and re-tagged up,” Papi said.
That gave Maryland’s defense too much time. Schmidt’s relay beat Papi to the plate, and the Terps had an inning-ending double play that stunned the Cavaliers and left the score 1-1.
“That was absolutely huge,” Stinnett said. “That could have turned into a nightmare of an inning.”
For UVa, it was something close to that.
“It’s tough to judge a 27-out game by one play,” Papi said, “but baseball’s a game of momentum, and I think that that play took a little bit of the momentum out of us.”
O’Connor said: “I don’t know. Maybe it would have been a different story, but that doesn’t take anything away from the tremendous ball game that Maryland played and how we played the rest of the game.”
In the bottom of the ninth, Maryland closer Kevin Mooney retired the Cavaliers’ first two batters. But sophomore John La Prise followed with an infield single, and then Mooney hit Downes with a pitch, giving UVa runners on first and second.
For one final time Saturday, though, a clutch hit eluded the `Hoos. Sophomore Robbie Coman, who had replaced junior Nate Irving (0 for 3) at catcher, flied out to right, and the Terps celebrated a victory that improved their record in this NCAA tourney to 4-0.
“We had opportunities, certainly, to really open it up with another big hit and have a multi-run inning,” O’Connor said, “and we just couldn’t do it. And that’s to their credit.”
UVa, which spent much of the regular season ranked No. 1 nationally, now faces a do-or-die situation. But Papi isn’t worried that the Game 1 defeat will haunt the `Hoos.
“As a team,” he said, “we’re really good at moving past things and moving on to the next day and just coming to the field with the same approach that we did today, just play our Virginia way and put today behind us.”