May 26, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE — During Brian O’Connor‘s phenomenally successful tenure as the University of Virginia’s baseball coach, Davenport Field has been a stadium where opposing teams typically have found frustration, not victory.
This season, however, UVa (34-22) has played better in away games (13-8) and at neutral sites (10-4) than at Davenport (11-10). And so O’Connor is not distraught that the Cavaliers will open the NCAA tournament some 2,500 miles from Charlottesville.
When the 64-team NCAA field was announced Monday, Virginia found itself headed, as a No. 3 seed, to the four-team regional in Lake Elsinore, Calif. Hosting the regional is top-seeded UC Santa Barbara (40-15-1), whose campus is about a three-hour drive away. (UCSB’s stadium does not have lights and so was not an option for an NCAA regional.)
Joining UVa and UCSB at Lake Elsinore Stadium, home of the minor-league Lake Elsinore Storm, will be No. 2 seed Southern California (37-19) and No. 4 seed San Diego State (42-21).
“Playing all Cali teams, it’s going to be something special and something you always remember,” Virginia pitcher Josh Sborz said Monday at Davenport Field.
This is the Wahoos’ 12th season under O’Connor, who’s guided them to the NCAA tourney each year. In three of O’Connor’s first five seasons, Virginia hosted regionals at Davenport Field. Not until 2009, though, did the `Hoos break through and advance to a super regional. They went 3-0 that season in the regional at Irvine, Calif.
“So there’s something to playing on the road,” O’Connor said Monday at Davenport. “Believe me, I would love to be playing in this ballpark, with our fans behind us, but we didn’t earn that this year, and I think this team has proven this year that we’re better out on the road. And I’m looking forward to this opportunity.”
Virginia, last year’s NCAA runner-up, will open the double-elimination regional Friday at 6 p.m. ET against USC. Connor Jones (5-2, 3.05) has been the Cavaliers’ No. 1 starter for more than a month, but O’Connor said it’s not a given the sophomore right-hander will get the call against the Trojans.
“The reality is, to win this thing, you gotta win three games, and we all know the advantage of winning the first two,” O’Connor said. “So I think that we need to set it up to certainly give ourselves the best chance against Southern Cal, but also to win the next one, too.”
Junior left-hander Nathan Kirby, a two-time All-ACC selection, has not pitched since April 17, when he strained his left latissimus dorsi muscle against ACC rival Miami. Kirby (5-2, 2.28 ERA) may be available this weekend, but “I don’t know in what capacity,” O’Connor said.
“I know this: He isn’t going to start the first two ball games. So it’s going to be something that we would have to assess later on in the week and see if it is an option, and if it is, what capacity he would be in.
“There’s a lot of things that are going to factor into that. One, is he ready? Two, even if he’s ready, am I putting him in a position for him to succeed for our team, and also, am I putting him in a position that’s not in the best interest of his future?”
Virginia enters the NCAA tournament on a three-game losing streak. All came at the ACC tournament in Durham, N.C., where the Cavaliers’ bullpen struggled. To address that problem, Sborz is moving back to closer, the junior right-hander’s role for most of the season.
If Sborz (3-2, 2.17) isn’t needed in Virginia’s first two games, he could start a third game, O’Connor said. “But our plan will be if we have a chance to win the game, we’re going to use him out of the bullpen. And then we’ll assess as we move on, from Game 1 to Game 2, and beyond that, what we’ll do with him.
“I’m not saying that he won’t start. I think it’s all a matter of what happens in the first couple of games.”
Sborz has 12 saves this season. Twenty-two of his 25 appearances have come out of the bullpen.
“I think Josh adds a little bit more fire in the back of our bullpen for us,” Jones said.
Under O’Connor, the Cavaliers have advanced to the College World Series three times. A team that makes a deep run in the NCAA tournament, O’Connor knows, usually has a big-time closer, and Sborz qualifies as such.
“When you’re talking about ending [an opponent’s] season, that’s really difficult to do,” O’Connor said. “And so not only do you have to have somebody at the end of the game that can handle the pressure of the situation, you also have to have somebody that’s got really good stuff, too. And he has that.”
Sborz and Jones said the players are excited about heading to an unfamiliar site.
“It’s a little different,” Sborz said. “The weather’s going to be different, the people are going to be different, the atmosphere’s going to be different.
“But our away record speaks for itself, and traveling somewhere else, I think, is the best for us.”
Jones said: “It’s exciting. These are new teams. I’ve heard of them, but I don’t really know anything about them. I couldn’t tell you the mascots for most of them.
“It’s almost like a fresh start. We’re not playing North Carolina or Duke, the same teams. It’s like it’s a new, interesting start.”
At his press conference Monday, O’Connor was asked, not surprisingly, about 2009. That UVa team became the first in program history to reach the College World Series, and it did so by winning an NCAA regional in Irvine and then a super regional in Oxford, Miss.
In Irvine, Virginia opened with a win over San Diego State, whose starting pitcher was Stephen Strasburg, and then defeated host UC Irvine, the regional’s No. 1 seed, twice.
The Cavaliers’ accomplishment against Mississippi was significant too — they came back to win the final two games of the best-of-three series after dropping the opener — but “that weekend out in Irvine in ’09 certainly was a really defining weekend for this program and its history,” O’Connor said.
“We went out there in a regional that everybody was calling the toughest regional in the [NCAA tournament], and I think we gave up three runs combined in the entire three games.”
He smiled. “If we do that this weekend, I think we’re going to have a chance to win it.”
This has been a turbulent season for the `Hoos, who have suffered numerous injuries, and unlike anything O’Connor experienced as a head coach before this year. For much of the past decade, Virginia has come out of the ACC tournament as a virtual lock for a No. 1 seed in an NCAA regional.
“It was just a slam dunk that it was going to happen,” O’Connor said.
That wasn’t the case this season, and the Cavaliers were reminded that “you can’t take these things for granted,” Jones said, “and just getting a bid to the NCAA tournament is a big deal of itself.”
A UVa team that relies heavily on underclassmen “put ourselves in the position that there was some uneasiness going into today,” O’Connor said Monday, “and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that, because it allows you to appreciate how challenging it was to get to this point … This is different than what we’ve experienced the last few years, and I think it’s really good for this team.”
Here’s the schedule for the Lake Elsinore Regional, with all times Eastern:
Game 1 — No. 2 seed USC vs. No. 3 seed Virginia, 6 p.m.
Game 2 — No. 1 seed UCSB vs. No. 4 seed San Diego State, 10 p.m.
Game 3 — Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 6 p.m.
Game 4 — Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 10 p.m.
Game 5 — Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 6 p.m.
Game 6 — Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 4, 10 p.m.
MONDAY (if necessary)
Game 7 — Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6, 9 p.m.