Return Engagement in Omaha Awaits Surging 'Hoos
June 7, 2015
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CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the bullpen next to the home dugout at Davenport Field, University of Virginia pitcher Brandon Waddell was too nervous to sit down. His work done for the day, Waddell paced.
“Back and forth,” he said later. “Head turned toward the field, away from the field. Didn’t really know what to do.”
It was the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday evening, and the Cavaliers, who had rallied to win the opening game of this best-of-three NCAA super regional Friday night, trailed Maryland 4-2 and were down to their final three outs.
Virginia didn’t need any of those outs in what head coach Brian O’Connor called “a magical bottom of the ninth.” After closer Kevin Mooney walked in a run with the bases loaded, UVa’s No. 9 hitter, freshman Ernie Clement, came to the plate, and the sellout crowd of 5,001 rose to its feet.
Moments later, the pleas of Virginia fans were answered. Clement smacked a 2-2 breaking ball from Mooney down the left-field line, scoring pinch-runner Thomas Woodruff and Joe McCarthy and lifting the Wahoos to a 5-4 victory that sends them to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the second straight year and fourth time in seven seasons.
“This is the greatest feeling ever,” Clement said.
His hit, naturally, evoked memories of the two-run single by Chris Taylor in the third and final game of UVa’s super regional with UC Irvine in 2011. Taylor’s two-out hit at Davenport Field that day gave the `Hoos a 3-2 victory and triggered a frenzied celebration among players, coaches and fans.
A similar scene unfolded after the final out Saturday at Davenport, and Clement did not escape unscathed. He was body-slammed by teammate Kevin Doherty — one of the heroes of the Cavaliers’ comeback win Friday — and then engulfed by teammates in a dogpile that even O’Connor leaped onto.
“I got dinged up,” said a smiling Clement, lifting his cap to reveal a patch of scratches on his forehead. “It’s completely worth it, though. I’ll take it any day of the week.”
So will O’Connor, who emerged from the dogpile with scratches on his left arm. His delight in what his team has achieved was palpable during the 30-minute press conference that followed the super regional.
“That’s why you come to the University of Virginia to play baseball,” O’Connor said. “You come here to get a great education, you come here to have great teammates and get better and have a chance to play in Omaha, and this team’s going to have that opportunity, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Virginia (39-22) will open play in the eight-team College World Series on Saturday against Missouri State or Arkansas at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. At last year’s CWS, UVa advanced to the championship series before falling to Vanderbilt in the third and final game.
From that team, the Cavaliers lost such mainstays as Mike Papi, Nick Howard, Derek Fisher, Brandon Downes, Branden Cogswell, Artie Lewicki, Whit Mayberry and Austin Young. Yet the Cavaliers never doubted that they could make it back to Omaha this year, sophomore catcher Matt Thaiss said Saturday, even when their postseason prospects looked bleak.
“All year we’ve known what we’ve had,” Thaiss said. “We know we’re a great team. We’re with each other every day. We see the talent that we had, and we just had to put it together at the right time, and I think we did so.”
This is O’Connor’s 12th season at Virginia, where his record is a staggering 553-199-2. Under O’Connor and his longtime assistants — associate head coach Kevin McMullan and pitching coach Karl Kuhn — the Cavaliers have made 12 straight appearances in the NCAA tournament. This latest team, however, has encountered more adversity than many of the other clubs combined, including injuries to such key players as Nathan Kirby, Joe McCarthy, John La Prise and Derek Casey.
He’s proud of every team he’s coached, O’Connor said Saturday, but “this one’s really, really special. Certainly you couldn’t be more proud of them, the way that they’ve handled themselves.”
Nothing came easily during the regular season for the `Hoos, who needed a late surge simply to qualify for the ACC tournament. In 2014, Virginia entered the NCAA tourney as the No. 3 overall seed. The Cavaliers entered this NCAA tourney on a three-game losing steak and seeded No. 3 in the four-team regional at Lake Elsinore, Calif.
None of that matters now. After going 3-0 in California last weekend and then adding two more victories in Charlottesville, the `Hoos will head to Omaha as one of the nation’s hottest teams.
“I think that just shows we can piece it together,” Waddell said. “We’ve been through adversity, we’ve been through ups and downs, and to be able to pull through and still be successful, it’s big.”
Each game in this super regional, in a sense, was a microcosm of the Cavaliers’ season. In the opener Friday, UVa trailed 3-0 after seven innings. But the `Hoos rallied for five runs in the eighth — three off Mooney — and came away with a 5-3 victory.
About 24 hours later, Virginia fell behind in the fifth and didn’t regain the lead until the ninth.
“This game is a reflection of our season,” O’Connor said Saturday. “We hung in there, the guys didn’t quit, and we found a way. That’s what they’ve been doing all year long. Just amazing. Different guys, different days. The job that Brandon Waddell did was really, really terrific. Just like [Game 1 starter] Connor Jones hung in there and gave us a chance to win yesterday, Brandon Waddell did the same thing.”
This was not Waddell’s finest game as a Cavalier — the junior left-hander allowed 10 hits and all four Maryland runs — but he showed again why he’s such a valuable member of the team.
“He clearly did not have the kind of stuff that he’s had recently, but he just never let it get out of control,” O’Connor said.
“It shows what he’s made of, that he didn’t just throw in the towel. He didn’t say, `It’s not my day.’ He knew that we needed to eat the game up. That’s what we call it. He needed to eat the game up for us and give us a chance.”
Waddell appeared to grow stronger as the game wore on, and the `Hoos lost nothing when Alec Bettinger took the mound in the ninth. A sophomore right-hander who was coming off a disastrous start at Lake Elsinore, Bettinger retired the Terps in order.
“That was a huge inning,” O’Connor said. “He came in and got three outs and gave us a chance and kept the game in check.”
In each of the first eight innings, Maryland had retired UVa’s leadoff hitter. But freshman Pavin Smith led off the ninth by drawing a walk off left-hander Robert Galligan, who pitched brilliantly for most of the game. Junior Robbie Coman followed with a single, and the Terps suddenly did not look so confident.
“I think it does put a lot of pressure on somebody,” O’Connor said of Smith’s walk. “You get that leadoff hitter on, and then all of a sudden you think, `OK, well, if somebody hits a ball out of the ballpark, it’s a tie game.’ You start being a little bit more fine as a pitcher, and maybe that’s part of what happened.”
With McCarthy coming to the plate, Maryland coach Jim Szefc chose to stick with Galligan, who had relieved starter Ryan Selmer with one out in the first.
McCarthy, a junior, showed bunt, but he never made contact with the ball. He never had to. Galligan walked him on four pitches, loading the bases, and Szefc turned to Mooney, a junior right-hander who had entered this super regional with a 1.21 earned-run average.
Mooney’s second relief appearance of the weekend went no better than his first. Doherty, the No. 8 hitter whose three-run double off Mooney had put the Cavaliers ahead to stay Friday night, drew a five-pitch walk Saturday, bringing Smith home from third and making it 4-3.
Then came the at-bat in which Clement etched his name in program lore.
“I think I’m going to go buy a lottery ticket after this, because I told Ernie he was going to get up that inning and he was going to come up with a big hit,” Thaiss said.
Clement confirmed after the game that he’s seen video of Taylor’s hit against UC Irvine.
“I’ve watched it a ton, honestly,” Clement said. “It’s awesome. [Taylor] actually came by and took groundballs with us for a couple days. I watched it even more after that. He’s awesome, and that play will go down in history, obviously.”
Sophomore shortstop Daniel Pinero and senior third baseman Kenny Towns burst out of the clubhouse during the postgame press conference Saturday, interrupting the proceedings long enough to snap a selfie with their head coach.
“I created a monster,” O’Connor said, smiling.
That was a reference to the Thursday press conference at which O’Connor, before taking questions from reporters, pulled out his smartphone and took a selfie with Jones, Pinero and pitcher Josh Sborz.
“You want them to win the game,” O’Connor said Saturday, “but they have to enjoy it, and I’ve been stressing that to them, ever since the ACC tournament … that they have earned the right to play in the NCAA tournament, and they need to enjoy every time they step out on the field. And they need to have a smile on their face, because you just don’t know when it can end. And I really, truly mean that.
“I think they’re enjoying it. They’re enjoying being around each other. That’s part of the reason I took a selfie the other day.”
O’Connor smiled again. “I don’t even know what a selfie is. I don’t know how to take them, I don’t know how to tweet it. But I wanted to remind them that this is fun, and they should enjoy it.”
Rest assured, his players are loving this ride.
`I noticed it today when we were in the locker room this morning,” Thaiss said Saturday. “Everyone was loose, we were joking around, it didn’t feel [like] a super regional was about to happen.
“It’s been that way all year. Guys joke around, we have fun, but when it comes to game time we’re ready to go. I think that looseness, that confidence has really played a key factor in us this year.”