June 10, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE — By the end of three innings, UVa led 6-0, and there was little doubt which baseball team would celebrate with an infield dogpile at Davenport Field when the final out was recorded Monday night.
There was more suspense on June 7, 2009, when the Cavaliers were locked in a tie game after four innings, and especially on June 13, 2011, when Virginia trailed UC Irvine 2-1 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
On each of those days, of course, UVa went on to capture the third game of a best-of-three NCAA super regional and clinch a berth in the College World Series, beating Mississippi 5-1 in Oxford and, two years later, stunning UC Irvine 3-2 in Charlottesville.
Monday night, in another Game 3 of another super regional, Virginia crushed Maryland 11-2 before a sellout crowd of 5,001 at Davenport Field. And so the Wahoos will make the trip from Charlottesville to Omaha, Neb. — a distance of 1,186 miles, as head coach Brian O’Connor’s players will happily tell you — for the third time in program history.
“I tell you, it feels better without the drama,” O’Connor said, laughing. “2011 was absolutely gut-wrenching, how we won that one.”
Of the eight teams that will play in Omaha, Virginia had the highest overall seed — No. 3 — when the NCAA tournament began last month. In its College World Series opener, UVa (49-14) will meet Ole Miss (46-19) on Sunday at 8 p.m. (Eastern) at TD Ameritrade Park.
“From the beginning of the year, one of the main goals we set out for ourselves is to get to Omaha,” junior third baseman Kenny Towns said. “I’m glad this journey is still continuing.”
O’Connor said: “I’m just so proud of this team. I think this is a team that’s built to win in Omaha. I think they’ll understand what it takes to be successful there. They’ll be very, very focused … I think in all phases of the game this team’s pretty special, and I’m excited to see them go out to Omaha and compete for a national championship.”
In 2009, the Cavaliers went 1-2 in Omaha. The 2011 team went 2-2. Like O’Connor, Maryland coach John Szefc believes this UVa team is capable of a much longer stay in Omaha.
After losing the opener of the super regional 5-4, the `Hoos totaled 30 hits and outscored the Terps 18-5 in the final two games. Four Cavaliers had multiple hits in Game 3: freshman shortstop Daniel Pinero (2 for 3), sophomore right-fielder Joe McCarthy (2 for 5), junior center-fielder Brandon Downes (2 for 4) and Towns (3 for 4).
“These guys are by far the most talented team we played all year — not even close,” Szefc said. “That is an absolute college baseball monster right there, between their players and their coaches.”
In a series that began at noon Saturday, UVa closer Nick Howard, the 19th overall pick in last week’s Major League Baseball draft, didn’t make his first appearance until 9:41 p.m. Monday, when he entered with two outs in the top of the eighth.
O’Connor would have called on Howard earlier in the game, but the junior right-hander wasn’t needed on a night when UVa’s starter, sophomore Josh Sborz, turned in a performance that left fans, players and coaches — from both teams — buzzing.
“He had pretty electrifying stuff the whole time he was out there,” Maryland center-fielder Charlie White said.
Late in the regular season, senior Artie Lewicki replaced Sborz in the Cavaliers’ weekend rotation. On most teams, Szefc said, Sborz would be the No. 1 starter. At UVa he’s No. 4. (Lewicki pitched in relief in Virginia’s Game 2 win Sunday.)
To lose his slot was “a little frustrating,” Sborz said Monday night, “but I knew my time would come eventually, and I just tried to give my team the best chance. I didn’t try to do anything extra to prove anything.”
He proved plenty anyway. In his first start in nearly a month, Sborz struck out nine and allowed only four hits in seven innings.
“That guy was unbelievable,” Szefc said. “He was as good of an arm as we saw all year, and we ran into him on the wrong night.”
After the seventh inning, when it was clear that Sborz’s work for the night was done, his teammates exchanged hugs and high-fives with the 6-3, 225-pound right-hander from McLean. The Cavaliers’ fans showed their appreciation, too, clapping until Sborz reluctantly emerged from the dugout and tipped his hat to the crowd.
“The entire time I was refusing to go out, but after about a minute of them not stopping clapping, I figured I just had to get it out of the way,” Sborz said of his curtain call. “But it felt amazing. I don’t think there’s been a better experience than that in my life.”
O’Connor said: “I had complete confidence in Josh Sborz going out there today … Josh hadn’t started in three weeks, hadn’t really pitched much in three weeks, and when his team needed him the most, he stepped up and was absolutely dominating for seven innings.
Maryland (40-23) squandered an opportunity to rattle Sborz early. He walked two of the first three batters he faced, and the Terrapins’ cleanup hitter, Jose Cuas, came to the plate in the first inning with runners on first and second. But Cuas hit into a double play – Pinero to second baseman Branden Cogswell to first baseman Mike Papi — and Sborz could exhale. He was all but untouchable thereafter.
“That double play was huge,” O’Connor said. “I think it had so much to do with his confidence that he could attack them.”
The Cavaliers had considerably more success against Maryland’s starter, junior right-hander Bobby Ruse, virtually all of whose previous appearances this season had been in relief. After junior Derek Fisher’s RBI single put UVa up 1-0 in the bottom of the first, Towns followed with a two-run triple off the left-field wall — the same wall on which he and his teammates would climb after the game to celebrate with fans in the bleachers.
Towns was just getting started. In the third, he drilled a two-run single that made it 5-0, and he added another single in the fifth. Of the juniors who play regularly for UVa, Towns was the only one not drafted last week, but his value to the team is immense.
In the final two games of the super regional, he was 6 for 9, with 5 RBI.
“I was up there in some good situations to hit,” Towns said. “I wasn’t trying to do too much. Just got some good pitches to hit and was able to barrel a couple balls up.”
O’Connor said: “Kenny Towns has been clutch. I remember back to the back part of his freshman year, when we plugged him in there and DHed a little bit. He got a lot of big, clutch hits. I know he has a lot of pride. I think he’s one of the real leaders of our team, because he comes out there every day, and he’s ready to play.”
In July 2012, Fisher competed in the College Home Run Derby in Omaha, and Towns did the same last summer. The only players in the program left from the 2011 College World Series team, however, are pitchers Lewicki, Austin Young and Whit Mayberry.
They’re among the leaders on a team that began the year ranked No. 1 in two major polls and held that position for much of the regular season. Rarely have these `Hoos stumbled. Behind a superlative junior class — Howard, Cogswell, Downes, Fisher, Papi and catcher Nate Irving were drafted last week — Virginia has won 11 of 12 series this season.
“You got a group of veteran players that have had huge expectations on them since they walked on these Grounds,” O’Connor said. “Really, I’m so proud because they handled it absolutely the right way.
“You’re always concerned as a coach when you have talent like we have [about] how they’re going to handle their junior year with the draft and things like that. These guys handled it great. Their approach, their work ethic all year long was commensurate with the success that they’ve had.”
O’Connor grew up across the Missouri River from Omaha in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and he played his college ball at Creighton. That made it even more noteworthy when the Cavaliers finally broke through and made it to Omaha in 2009. The 2011 team had the distinction of entering the NCAA tourney as the No. 1 overall seed.
“They’re all special, because every team’s different,” O’Connor said. “Every team’s journey to get to this point is different. Every team deals with different things throughout the season.”
And now O’Connor’s 11th team at Virginia, where his record is an astounding 510-175-1, has an opportunity to stamp itself as the greatest in school history.
“I think it could be the best,” O’Connor said, “but we’ll make that final decision in about two weeks.”