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May 30, 2015

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LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. — The conversation with UVa baseball coach Brian O’Connor took place at a point in the season when Connor Jones was struggling to find consistency on the mound.

“I knew I needed to step my performances up from early on in the year,” Jones recalled Friday.

On April 17, not long after Jones’ meeting with O’Connor, All-ACC pitcher Nathan Kirby suffered an injury from which the junior left-hander has yet to return. The loss of Kirby could have devastated the Cavaliers, but Jones hasn’t allowed that to happen.

Kirby’s injury “was kind of like a wakeup call for me,” Jones said, “like, `This needs to start now.’ “

Jones’ latest gem came on the biggest stage on which he’s pitched as a starter. In the opening game of the NCAA tournament’s Lake Elsinore regional, the sophomore right-hander worked 7.2 innings Friday, striking out four and walking only two, as third-seeded Virginia knocked off second-seeded Southern California 6-1.

“When you’re in an NCAA regional, you need your Game 1 starter to pitch deep into the game, and certainly Connor did that for us,” UVa head coach Brian O’Connor. “He was terrific.”

That’s nothing new. In each of his past six starts, Jones (6-2, 2.90 ERA) has pitched at least seven innings.

“Ever since Nathan Kirby went down and Connor has moved into that Friday, or that No. 1, spot, he’s been terrific for us,” O’Connor said.

Asked about his mid-April meeting with Jones, whose only appearance in last year’s NCAA tournament came in relief, late in a rout of Bucknell, O’Connor said he regularly has such conversations with his players.

“We sat down and had a very honest conversation, and I shared with him that I felt that it was time that he took this next step in his development,” O’Connor said.

If the Wahoos “were going to go to where we wanted to go to,” O’Connor said, then “Connor Jones was going to need to be who he was capable of being. But he made the decision, certainly, and he made the decision to go out there and pound the strike zone and make big pitches. Fortunately since then he’s been very, very good for us.”

Their victory Friday moved the `Hoos into the winners’ bracket of this four-team regional. At approximately 10 p.m. (Eastern) Saturday, Virginia (35-22) will take on fourth-seeded San Diego State (41-21), with the winner advancing to a Sunday night game that could end the regional.

ESPN3 will stream the game online. The Cavaliers won a coin flip and will be the home team against San Diego State, which stunned top-seeded UC Santa Barbara 4-3 in the second game Friday before a raucous crowd at 6,064-seat Lake Elsinore Stadium.

USC (37-20) and UCSB (40-16-1) will meet in an elimination game Saturday at 6 p.m. Eastern.

“I think we play better when our backs are against the wall,” Southern California catcher Garrett Stubbs said. “Whenever we’ve lost on Fridays in the past, we’ve come back and won on Saturdays and Sundays.”

Stubbs, an All-Pac 12 selection, singled in the first inning and again in the sixth Friday. The rest of the Trojans were a combined 3 for 25 against Jones.

“I didn’t think we swung the bats as well as I expected,” USC head coach Dan Hubbs said, “but part of it you could put on Jones’ pitching. He had good stuff.”

So did the Trojans’ starter. Junior right-hander Kyle Davis, a converted closer, had a no-hitter through six scoreless innings. In the seventh, though, the Cavaliers finally broke through.

Sophomore Matt Thaiss led off the inning with a grounder that USC third baseman Blake Lacey misplayed. Kenny Towns, one of only two seniors on Virginia’s roster, followed with a single. Freshman Pavin Smith’s sacrifice bunt – his first of the season – moved the runners to second and third, and then junior Robbie Coman’s fielder’s choice drove in Thaiss.

Towns scored on a wild pitch by Davis, and the `Hoos had a lead they never relinquished in the first baseball game between these schools.

Before the start of the seventh, Towns told reporters, he and Thaiss had been talking in the on-deck circle, and “we said, `Once we get that [first] hit, it’s just going to get going.’ It was one of those things that they always say, hitting’s contagious, and once you kind of break that seal, everyone kinds of gets looser, plays a little freer and doesn’t feel that pressure on them.”

UVa freshman Adam Haseley led off the eighth with a double and moved to third on sophomore Daniel Pinero’s textbook sacrifice bunt. Another USC error made it 3-0. The Trojans closed to 3-1 in the bottom half of the inning, but the `Hoos answered with three runs in the ninth, on an RBI-single by Haseley and a two-run double by another Virginia freshman, Ernie Clement.

“We had a couple opportunities,” Hubbs said. “We didn’t make the most of it. They had a couple opportunities, and they made the most of it. That was the difference in the game.”

In the sixth, USC had runners on first and second with one out. Staring directly into the sun on a broiling afternoon, Virginia right-fielder Joe McCarthy recorded the second out, securing a long fly ball after bobbling it for a moment. Jones retired Dante Flores on a grounder back to the mound, and the Trojans’ threat was quelled.

“I thought that was a huge play in the game,” O’Connor said of McCarthy’s catch. “Certainly there were a number of them, but Joe just being able to hang onto that ball, and them not being able to score, was very, very important.”

With two outs in the eighth, junior right-hander Josh Sborz replaced Jones, who left to a warm ovation. Sborz needed only 18 pitches to retire the Trojans’ final four batters and wrap up the victory for Virginia, which is playing away from Charlottesville on the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend for the first time since 2009.

“You feel really good about the pitching that we had,” O’Connor said. “Any time when you have pitching like that, you feel like if you can just move a runner up, or a couple runners up and get them in scoring position, it certainly increases your chances of scoring runs, and fortunately it worked out for us.”

Junior left-hander Brandon Waddell will start Saturday night against San Diego State, the only team in this regional Virginia had faced before this weekend. In the 2009 NCAA regional at Irvine, Calif., UVa opened with a 5-1 victory over the Aztecs and their ace, Stephen Strasburg.

What the `Hoos need from Waddell, pitching coach Karl Kuhn said late Friday night, is the “same thing we need from all of our starters. We just need him to get outs. We’ve got 27 of `em. We need to count `em down, and all of our starters know that their job is to set a tone. Connor set a tone today, and Brandon has done that for us his entire career and pitched in some big games, and we look forward to him doing that tomorrow.”

Waddell hasn’t had the season most expected — he’s 3-5, with a 4.52 ERA — but he’s been in the Cavaliers’ weekend rotation throughout his college career. Moreover, he’s often pitched best in postseason games, most memorably against Vanderbilt in last year’s College World Series championship series.

In NCAA tourney games, Waddell is 4-1 with a 2.09 ERA.

“It’s not like you’re sending a freshman out there,” Kuhn said. “He’s been in the battles, his mettle is tested, and he knows what he has to do. He knows his job ahead of him, and he wants to do everything he can for the team, and I know that he will.”

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