By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The series is not over, Virginia knows. It’s not unprecedented for a team that wins the first game of a NCAA baseball super regional to end up dropping the best-of-three series. It happened at Davenport Field last season, in fact.
Still, UVa is exactly where it wants to be after the first game of its super regional with former ACC rival Maryland. The team that wins twice at Davenport Field this weekend advances to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., and the Wahoos are halfway there after rallying Friday to defeat the Terrapins 5-3.
“It’s a lot easier when you win the first one,” Maryland coach John Szefc said.
Virginia coach Brian O’Connor would not disagree. But O’Connor need only look back 12 months to be reminded that a Game 1 triumph is no guarantee of a series victory. In a super regional at Davenport last year, Maryland won the opener, only to see Virginia storm back to take Games 2 and 3 and clinch a CWS berth for the third time in six seasons.
“The way I look at it is, we have another opportunity to play [Saturday] that we earned,” O’Connor said Friday night. “I think once you start thinking about `one win away’ from something — whether it be Omaha, whether it be a national championship, whatever — I think you can kind of cloud your thoughts a little bit.
“This team has certainly earned the opportunity to play [Saturday], and I think that they’ll come out and they’ll be aggressive like they have been in this postseason.”
Since their inauspicious showing at the ACC tournament in Durham, N.C., the `Hoos (38-22) are unbeaten. They went 3-0 last weekend at the Lake Elsinore regional in California to advance to the NCAA tourney’s round of 16 for the sixth time in seven seasons. Virginia then opened the super regional with a late-game comeback that stunned the Terrapins (42-23), now members of the Big Ten.
UVa, which trailed 3-0 after seven innings, scored five runs in the top of the eighth, rocking Maryland closer Kevin Mooney.
“I couldn’t tell you the last time he was unsuccessful in that situation,” Szefc said of Mooney, who came in with a 1.21 earned-run average.
Junior left-hander Brandon Waddell, whose career record in the NCAA tournament is 4-1, with a 1.76 ERA, will start Saturday (3 p.m.) for Virginia in a game ESPNU is televising.
Connor Jones started the opener for Virginia, and the sophomore right-hander delivered his seventh straight strong performance. Jones’ control wasn’t flawless — he walked five batters — but he kept the Terps from blowing the game open before UVa’s offense finally awakened.
“For me,” O’Connor said, “the story of today’s ball game was Connor going out there and hanging in there and giving us the sixth and seventh inning to give us a chance to do what we did in the eighth.”
The eighth ranks among the most memorable innings of O’Connor’s 12 seasons at Virginia. Maryland starter Mike Shawaryn, who pitched brilliantly for most of the game, retired leadoff hitter Adam Haseley. But sophomores Daniel Pinero and Matt Thaiss followed with singles for the Cavaliers, after which Mooney replaced Shawaryn on the mound.
The pitching change did not faze the `Hoos.
“You hear it all the time, that hitting’s contagious,” O’Connor said, “and it certainly was in that inning … They just weren’t going to be denied.”
Senior Kenny Towns, who has been instrumental in untold rallies during his UVa career, singled home Pinero, and freshman Pavin Smith drove in Thaiss with another single. Suddenly it was 3-2, and all but the red-clad fans in the crowd of 5,001 raised a familiar chant: “U-V-A! U-V-A!”
“I think we were able to use that to our advantage in the later innings,” Towns said of the crowd’s support, “when we got the game rolling a little bit for us.”
With junior Robbie Coman at the plate, a wild pitch moved the runners to second and third. Mooney retired Coman on a groundout, and then the Terps chose to intentionally walk junior Joe McCarthy. That brought up Kevin Doherty, a junior from Laytonsville, Md., who until this season had been used exclusively as a relief pitcher at Virginia.
Doherty entered Friday’s game hitting .238, and he was 0 for 3, with two strikeouts, when he stepped into the batter’s box to face Mooney.
“I kind of took the mentality to be very aggressive,” Doherty said, “because I knew there was a high-percentage chance they’d throw me the fastball, because I’d looked so bad on prior at-bats.”
In the final game of the Lake Elsinore regional, a 14-10 win over Southern California, Doherty’s 11th-inning double had scored McCarthy to give Virginia its first lead since the first inning. With fans at Davenport on their feet Friday evening, Doherty delivered again, smacking Mooney’s first pitch, a high fastball, for a three-run double to left center, where center-fielder LaMonte Wade could not make the play at the wall.
“I had it for a second,” Wade said, “and I just dropped it.”
Before his pivotal at-bat against USC, Doherty recalled, he’d told himself “to put a good swing on this so we can get out of here and end this game,” and similar thoughts went through his mind in the eighth Friday night.
“Just relax and don’t try to do too much, and that really worked out for me,” Doherty said.
Junior right-hander Josh Sborz took it from there for the Cavaliers, earning his 14th save of the season. This marked the fourth straight game Sborz has closed. Not coincidentally, Virginia has won each of them.
Against Maryland, Sborz faced seven batters, allowing one hit, striking out two, and walking none. With UVa fans chanting, “ACC! ACC!” Sborz finished with a flourish, fanning Tim Lewis to end the game.
“The confidence level in Josh Sborz is very, very high,” O’Connor said. “He has really developed in that role throughout the year.”
Sborz struggled at times early in the year, but he’s “learned from those opportunities that he had throughout the season, and he’s going to go out there and give us his best,” O’Connor said. “Today I thought he looked as good as he’s looked. The fastball was 93 to 95, 96, and the slider was really good. Certainly for us to win this super regional we’re going to count on Josh Sborz again.”
The first chance for UVa to wrap up the series comes Saturday, when another capacity crowd will pack Davenport.
“It’s awesome,” O’Connor said. “You look up in the stands an hour before the game, when they let the gates open, and you see these people running with lawn chairs and sprinting to their spot. That’s exciting, and that’s college baseball. Our fans are great, and does it make a difference in our guys out on the field? Sure it does. You don’t have a heartbeat if you don’t get excited about playing in that kind of environment.”