By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Virginia baseball team had hoped to spend the first part of the day resting while awaiting the result of an elimination game at Davenport Field.
Instead, after a calamitous ninth inning Saturday night against East Carolina, the Cavaliers will report to work early Sunday, with their margin for the error in the NCAA tournament gone.
To extend its season, UVA (38-21), the No. 1 seed in this regional, must defeat No. 4 seed William & Mary (30-30) in an elimination game set to start at 11 a.m. at Davenport Field.
If the Wahoos do so, they will earn a rematch with third-seeded ECU (36-21-1) at 3 p.m. The `Hoos would then have to knock off the Pirates to force a winner-take-all championship game Monday.
Had the ninth unfolded differently Saturday night, defending NCAA champion Virginia’s postseason prospects would look much brighter. But the Cavaliers, the visiting team, gave up five runs to ECU in the bottom of ninth — the last three on a walk-off home run by Travis Watkins — and lost 8-6.
“That’s certainly as difficult a loss as we’ve had in the NCAA tournament,” UVA head coach Brian O’Connor said.
And so now Virginia must try to make history. In the six regionals the `Hoos have won — all during O’Connor’s record-setting tenure — they have gone 3-0 five times (2009, ’11, ’13, ’14, ’15) and 3-1 once (2010). They would have to finish this one with four victories — the Cavaliers defeated William & Mary 17-4 in their first game Friday — to advance to a best-of-three super regional.
“It hurts,” junior catcher Matt Thaiss said of the loss to ECU. “Guys are ticked off, but at the same time this regional is far from over. We have all the confidence in the world in our team, and I know everyone in that clubhouse knows that we can win this thing and knows that we have the right pieces in place to go ahead and win these next three games and get back [to a super regional].”
The Cavaliers scored two runs in the eighth — the first on sophomore Pavin Smith’s second home run of the game, the second on classmate Charlie Cody’s sacrifice fly — to stretch their lead to 6-3, and they had every reason to feel confidence in the ninth.
On the mound for the `Hoos was sophomore closer Tommy Doyle, who had struck out the two batters he faced in the eighth.
“He made us look stupid in the eighth,” ECU head coach Cliff Godwin said.
In the ninth, the Pirates’ rally started when their first batter, pinch-hitter Kirk Morgan, turned an infield chopper into a single.
“The first play, that’s baseball,” O’Connor said. “That happens. They had two or three of them today where they bounded the ball and hit in front of the plate, and we just couldn’t make the play.
“I’m a big believer at this time of the year, not only do you have to be good, you have to have some breaks go your way. That said, after the first one, they squared every ball up, and the only out we got was the [sacrifice] bunt. That’s a credit to them, because I thought their offensive approach in the ninth inning was as good as I’ve seen against Tommy Doyle since he’s been our closer, because he’s been pretty darn good.”
After pinch-runner Wes Phillips came in for Morgan, he scored from first on Parker Lamm’s double down the third-base line, pulling ECU to 6-4. The next batter, Charlie Yorgen, ripped a single into right field to score Lamm, and suddenly it was a one-run game.
Pitching coach Karl Kuhn visited Doyle on the mound before the next at-bat, but that didn’t slow the Pirates. Dwanya Williams-Sutton singled, giving ECU runners at first and second with none out. A sacrifice bunt moved the runners to second and third and brought up Watkins, who was for 0 for 4 to that point.
Watkins’ only hit of the day was one he’ll never forget: a towering shot over the wall in left-center field that triggered a frenzied celebration among the Pirates’ fans in the crowd of 4,628.
“That’s what you dream about growing up,” said Watkins, a redshirt junior who catches for ECU.
Until the ninth, however, ECU was 0 for 12 with runners in scoring position. In each of the first four innings, the Pirates stranded a runner at third base. They scored one run in the first and another in the third, but in each case they could have done much more damage.
“We were one hit way pretty much every inning throughout the game,” said Yorgen, a junior who went 4 for 5.
Jones, Virginia’s ace, allowed nine hits and three runs (two earned) before giving way to Shambora with one out in the sixth. Jones struck out three, walked one, hit two batters and threw two wild pitches.
“I thought we were able to get out of situations that typically you don’t get out of,” Jones said.
“I felt like we were really fortunate to only have given up three runs, quite frankly, going into the ninth inning … We were fortunate to be in the situation that we were, with a chance to win the game in the ninth inning.”
In a game in which sophomore Ernie Clement went 3 for 5, Thaiss and Smith had the biggest hits for Virginia. In the third, Thaiss extended his hitting streak to 18 games with a double that drove in Clement and freshman Cameron Simmons and made it 2-1. The next batter, Smith, crushed a home run, his seventh of the season, and the `Hoos had a 4-1 lead.
Smith, UVA’s first baseman, is the first player in program history to hit two home runs in an NCAA tournament game.
“Certainly if you win the game, he’s the player of the game,” O’Connor said.
At his press conference Saturday night, O’Connor said he had not decided who would start against William & Mary, which eliminated No. 2 seed Bryant 4-3 that afternoon. O’Connor said he was leaning toward sophomore left-hander Adam Haseley (9-3, 1.73 ERA).
The loss to ECU stings, O’Connor said, but his players must “handle it. This is an important part of their development as young men and their development as baseball players. They have an opportunity in this game to respond again. Hopefully they have it inside them. I believe that they’ll come out and play good baseball at 11 o’clock.”
His counterpart was thrilled with the Pirates’ dramatic win, but cautious too.
“It’s a big moment, but we haven’t done anything yet,” Godwin said. “We’re just 2-0 in the regional.”