May 31, 2015
LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. — The University of Virginia baseball team won’t learn the identity of its next opponent in the NCAA tournament until approximately 9 p.m. Eastern on Sunday.
UVa won’t mind the wait or the uncertainty. The Cavaliers know they’re in an ideal position: one victory from a sixth trip in seven seasons to a best-of-three NCAA super regional.
On a day when the Lake Elsinore regional’s No. 1 seed, UC Santa Barbara, was eliminated, third-seeded Virginia’s ascent continued. The Wahoos, who defeated second-seeded Southern California 6-1 on Friday, rallied to edge fourth-seeded San Diego State 3-1 on Saturday night to remain unbeaten in this double-elimination regional.
“It’s huge for us,” UVa pitcher Brandon Waddell said of being 2-0. “The momentum going into tomorrow is big for us. We’ve played two really good games, and we’re looking forward to continuing it.”
USC bounced back from its loss to Virginia to rout UCSB 12-3 in the first game Saturday at Lake Elsinore Stadium.
The victory sent the Trojans (38-20) to another elimination game, this one against San Diego State (41-22). They’ll meet Sunday at 6 p.m. Eastern, with the winner advancing to face UVa (36-22) at 10 p.m.
Should the Cavaliers lose Sunday night, there would be a rematch Monday at 9 p.m. Eastern. ESPN3 is streaming the games from Lake Elsinore on-line.
Saturday’s first game ran long, pushing back the start of the second 25 minutes, to 10:30 p.m. Eastern. For UVa and SDSU, it was only their second meeting in baseball.
The first, as UVa fans well know, was on May 29, 2009, in the opening game of the NCAA regional in Irvine, Calif. Virginia shocked the Aztecs and their ace, Stephen Strasburg, 5-1, and went on become the first team in school history to reach the College World Series.
There was no one with Strasburg’s reputation in the second UVa-SDSU clash, but each team received a strong performance from its starting pitcher Saturday night.
For Virginia, Waddell worked a season-long 7.1 innings, scattering four hits, striking out five and walking only two. The junior left-hander allowed a run, but it was unearned.
For San Diego State, junior right-hander Mark Seyler went 7.2 innings, giving up five hits and allowing two earned runs.
“Hard-fought game,” Aztecs coach Mark Martinez said. “Unbelievably pitched game by both sides.”
As was the case Friday against USC, Virginia did its damage offensively in the second half of the game. While the Cavaliers’ bats slumbered, starters Connor Jones, who dazzled against USC, and Waddell were “out there pitching tough for us and not giving up runs,” junior right-fielder Joe McCarthy said Saturday night. “We weren’t really giving them any run support either, but they stayed in it, and the bats came alive [later].”
In the bottom of the fifth, McCarthy demolished a Seyler fast ball, sending it well over the 36-foot wall in right field and tying the game at 1-1. The home run was the first of the season for McCarthy, who missed Virginia’s first 35 games while recovering from back surgery. SDSU right-fielder Spencer Thornton didn’t bother to run once the ball was launched, so hard was it hit.
UVa closer Josh Sborz did his thing in the ninth against the Aztecs, who lost their best player, first baseman Steve Pallares (.351), to an injury in the bottom of the fifth.
Sborz, a junior right-hander who threw 18 pitches Friday, impressed again about 28 hours later, allowing no hits and walking none against San Diego State.
“If we’re in this same situation again [Sunday] night, he’ll be right back out there again,” Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor said.
Sborz entered Saturday night with one out, a runner on second and the score 1-1. Two defensive gems by shortstop Daniel Pinero followed — the 6-5 sophomore ranged left on each one to field a well-struck ball and then threw to first for the out — and they deflated the Aztecs and their strong-voiced contingent of fans.
“That kind of took the air out a bit for us,” Martinez said. “We put good swings on it. They just had us played perfectly up the middle.”
Waddell said: “That was a big momentum swing for us to come out and close down that inning. The momentum swing was coming our way, and we could feel it. We were battling tough [at the plate] all game, and we knew we were going to break through at some time.”
On a night when Sborz (4-2, 2.05 ERA) earned the victory, Waddell enhanced his reputation as Big Game Brandon. He entered with a 4-1 record (and 2.09 ERA) in NCAA tournament games and had few lapses Saturday night.
“Especially as a starter, your job is to set a tone,” Waddell said. “So to be able to go out there and do that for our team is huge.”
Of his play as a starter in three NCAA tournaments, Waddell said, “I have been fortunate to be successful in these games and I’m hoping to continue it. But it’s something that you don’t really think about. You can’t make it bigger than it is, and I think that’s where a lot of people struggle. They put a lot of pressure on themselves. If you just bear down and make pitches like you do all year, I think you’ll be all right.”
The team is staying in Corona, about a 30-minute drive from Lake Elsinore, and the hours passed slowly at times Saturday for the Cavaliers.
“It’s one of the hardest thing about playing on the road,” Waddell said. “You play a late-night game, and to take all day and relax all day, get off your feet and be able to go out there and still compete, it’s tough, but it’s the nature of the job.”
Jones and Waddell have done their jobs for the `Hoos, who are in the NCAA tournament for the 12th consecutive year. The spotlight will shift Sunday night to the next starting pitcher, probably sophomore Alec Bettinger (4-5, 3.99) or the left-handed Haseley (2-1, 2.66).
“Whoever we run out there, our team will have a lot of confidence in, and whoever it is will have done the job already numerous times for us this year,” O’Connor said. “I’m sure whoever it is, they’ll go out and give us a good quality start.”
This marks the sixth time in O’Connor’s 12 seasons at UVa that his team has won its first two games in a double-elimination NCAA regional. Only once in those situations, in 2007, have the Cavaliers failed to advance to a super regional.