June 13, 2015
OMAHA, Neb. — Brian O’Connor noticed it Thursday afternoon at TD Ameritrade Park, not long after his University of Virginia baseball team arrived in this city. The Cavaliers have advanced to the College World Series four times in O’Connor’s 12 seasons as their head coach, but this is the first time they’ve made it to Omaha in consecutive years, and there’s a collective calmness about this team.
Many of the key players from the club that reached last year’s CWS championship series are now in pro ball. Still, O’Connor has a strong core of veterans, including Kenny Towns, Daniel Pinero, Joe McCarthy, Josh Sborz, Matt Thaiss, Connor Jones and Brandon Waddell, and they’re no longer awed by the prospect of playing on the college game’s biggest stage.
“I don’t want to make too much out of it, but I think it does make a difference,” O’Connor said after Virginia opened this College World Series with a 5-3 victory over Arkansas before a crowd of 24,228.
“Even on Thursday when we were in the dugout, when we brought the team over here, talking to Kenny Towns, he was like, `This feels comfortable. This feels like home.’ Versus you ask the rookies that question, and their eyes are the size of silver dollars. I think it absolutely makes a difference.”
One of those rookies, freshman Ernie Clement, contributed an RBI single Saturday afternoon, but the Wahoos’ veterans made most of the big plays against the Razorbacks (40-24). The biggest was Towns’ two-out double off Arkansas right-hander Zach Jackson, one of the nation’s premier closers, in the top of the eighth inning.
“Certainly I thought it was the at-bat of the game,” O’Connor said.
Towns, one of only two seniors on the UVa roster, fell behind 1-2 against Jackson, but worked the count to 3-2 before hammering the ball down the right-field line. That scored Pinero and gave Virginia a 4-3 lead.
“What a great two-strike approach [Towns] had for those last three pitches,” O’Connor said. “And Jackson throws him a 3-2 breaking ball and he’s got a great approach and just hits the ball the other way.”
With Sborz on the mound — the junior right-hander replaced Jones after the sixth — the Cavaliers (40-22) had all the cushion they needed, though Clement’s RBI in the ninth did not hurt. (That was the first earned run Jackson has surrendered in this NCAA tournament.)
“It just allows you to be a little more relaxed,” Sborz said.
In his longest appearance since a May 19 start against Georgia Tech in an ACC tournament play-in game, Sborz struck out five of the 10 batters he faced Saturday and raised his record to 5-2.
“Sborz, he goes out there and attacks them,” Towns said. “He’s the guy you want in that situation. He’s shown it the last couple of weeks and especially of late.”
Virginia is in the College World Series’ Bracket 1, whose four teams are playing a double-elimination tournament. Its winner will advance to the CWS’ best-of-three championship series against the team that emerges from Bracket 2, which consists of LSU, TCU, Cal State Fullerton and defending NCAA champion Vanderbilt.
Arkansas will face the Miami Hurricanes (49-16), who lost 15-3 to SEC power Florida on Saturday night, in an elimination game Monday at 3 p.m. (EST).
UVa will take on the Gators (50-16) at 8 p.m. (EST) Monday, with the winner not playing again until Friday afternoon. Waddell, a junior left-hander who has a 4-1 career record (and 2.17 ERA) on the NCAA tourney, will start for the `Hoos on Monday night.
“Our team this year, especially this game, has been really relaxed,” Sborz said, “and it was really key for us to get that big first win, because now all those rookies are able to relax a little more. They’re played through a game, they’ve gotten one win under their belt, and we just gotta keep winning.”
All five of Virginia’s runs Saturday came with two outs. In the second, McCarthy hammered a pitch from Arkansas starter Trey Killian over the fence in right field, the 6-3, 215-pound junior’s second home run in a season in which he missed the first 35 games while recovering from back surgery.
The Hogs answered with two runs in the third, but Virginia regained the lead in the fifth on back-to-back RBI singles by sophomores Pinero and Thaiss. Later that inning, SEC player of the year Andrew Benintendi’s 20th home run of the season made it 3-3, but Arkansas did no more damage against Jones and then Sborz.
Jones, in his first CWS appearance, “certainly didn’t have his best stuff, but he grinded and gave us six innings,” O’Connor said. “I thought he did a tremendous job, and certainly we were very, very aggressive. Our plan coming into this World Series was to be very aggressive and take the fight to the other team, and certainly we did that from an offensive standpoint.”
To wit: Virginia came into the game with only 62 stolen-base attempts all season. The Cavaliers attempted eight steals Saturday and were successful on five. Pinero became the first player with three steals in a CWS game since Arizona’s Brad Boyer against, coincidentally, Arkansas on June 20, 2004.
“So we kind of lulled everybody to sleep all year and decided we’d start running today,” O’Connor said, tongue firmly in cheek. “No, but really, we’ve got some good athletes.”
In the eighth, Pinero reached on a one-out single and then stole second. Moments later, he stole third, but this time the decision to run was his, not the coaching staff’s.
“I knew [Jackson] had a high leg kick,” Pinero said. “I kind of wanted to take advantage of that, and I was creeping a little bit towards third base. I got a good jump, and it worked out in my favor.”
Jackson struck out Thaiss, but the `Hoos did not despair. Not with Towns, who’s becoming known as “Mr. June” for his postseason exploits at the plate. Even before Saturday, Towns held the school record for career RBI in the NCAA tournament, and now he has 22.
“He’s awfully good,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “He’s just a good hitter, clutch hitter, and that’s what it’s all about.”
In 26 NCAA tourney games, Towns is hitting 304.
“He’s been clutch his whole career,” Sborz said. “He’s just extremely calm [at the plate].”
Towns said: “I think I just feel comfortable in the postseason. The games are usually on the line this time of year. It’s nice to come through for your club.”
Asked about the “Mr. June” tag, Towns smiled. He doesn’t mind, he said, “because it’s always good to be playing in June.”
Towns won’t ever forget his first trip to Omaha, but he said he’s “definitely a lot more comfortable this time. I remember specifically from last year my first at-bat. I was shaking. This year, obviously I was real excited about it, but I felt a lot more comfortable, was more relaxed.”
He’s not alone. O’Connor said he attributes the Cavaliers’ postseason success this year partly to the “very relaxed but confident attitude that this team has carried. I think it’s served us well, and hopefully it does moving forward.”