By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As it entered the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday night, the University of Virginia baseball team had every reason to feel good about its chances of reaching an NCAA super regional for the third straight season.
In the winners’ bracket of the NCAA regional at Davenport Field, top-seeded UVA led third-seeded East Carolina 6-3 and was three outs from advancing to the championship game.
The Cavaliers never recorded that third out, however, and some 19 hours later, their season was over. In an elimination game that started Sunday at 11 a.m., fourth-seeded William & Mary stunned defending NCAA champion UVA 5-4 at Davenport Field.
“It’s just crazy to think that this thing is over,” said junior Daniel Pinero, the last Virginia player to walk off the field after the Tribe (31-31) recorded the final out.
For East Carolina, which eliminated W&M 8-4 later Sunday to capture the regional, its season will continue next weekend. The Pirates (37-21-1) will be among the 16 teams competing in eight best-of-three NCAA super regionals.
The Wahoos, who hammered William & Mary 17-4 in the regional’s opening game Friday, finished 38-22. That’s their fewest wins in 13 seasons under head coach Brian O’Connor, who has guided the ‘Hoos to the College World Series four times.
Virginia sputtered early in the season, as it did in 2015, but eventually found its rhythm. The Cavaliers closed the regular season by winning five straight ACC series and were awarded an NCAA regional for the ninth time in O’Connor’s tenure.
This one ended unhappily for Virginia, which lost a lead for the second straight game. After shaking hands with W&M’s players and coaches Sunday, the `Hoos gathered in right field, where O’Connor addressed the team.
“What I told the guys is that they needed to walk off this field with their chins up and proud of what’s on the front of their jersey,” O’Connor said at his postgame press conference. “They work every day, they sacrifice every day for the good of their teammates and the good of this program. They are very, very committed to what goes on here, and they’re very unselfish.
“When you have the success like we’ve had in this program, you have to step back and understand that sometimes you’ve got to take the bad with the good. It stings. Nobody likes losing. You feel like you can continue to play forever. But we’ve had a lot of success in this program, and we’re very proud of that, and I’m very proud of this team.”
All of those players were major contributors in 2015, too, so UVA’s offensive productivity this year was not unexpected. After losing Nathan Kirby, Josh Sborz and Brandon Waddell, and with Derek Casey still recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Cavaliers’ biggest questions heading into the season centered on their pitching.
Those concerns proved to be well-founded. The team’s earned-run average was 4.22 this season. It was 3.49 in 2015 and 2.23 in 2014.
“I liked our ball club from an offensive standpoint,” O’Connor said Sunday. “The pitching, we didn’t have the depth this year that we’ve had on some of our other clubs.”
Moreover, O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn didn’t settle on a weekend rotation until midway through the regular season, when sophomore Tommy Doyle became the Cavaliers’ closer and junior Alec Bettinger replaced Doyle as a starter.
“Throughout the season, certainly there was some uncertainty,” O’Connor said. “But coming down the stretch run there, I thought we had put it together pretty good and had a good understanding of what people’s roles were, certainly knowing that it would be difficult if we fell [into a regional] losers’ bracket.
“It was challenging, and through recruiting and getting some guys healthy, hopefully in the future we’ll be a little stronger in there.”
A 6-6 right-hander, Doyle sparkled as the closer for much of the season, but he allowed five runs in the bottom of the ninth Saturday night, the last a three-run home run that gave ECU the victory. Even so, O’Connor didn’t hesitate to use him again Sunday, and Doyle took over when freshman left-hander Daniel Lynch, in his first start since April 13, faltered with two outs in the bottom of the second.
Doyle struck out three, walked none and allowed only three hits in 4.1 innings against the Tribe. His lapses, though, were costly.
In the sixth, after Virginia had taken a 4-3 lead on Pinero’s bases-empty home run in the top half of the inning, Doyle surrendered a leadoff double to Charley Gould, who then scored on a single by Hunter Smith.
In the seventh, Doyle gave up a leadoff home run to Charles Ameer, and the tie was broken.
Still, O’Connor said, “I think Tommy showed what he’s made of. I think a lot of young men might have gone out there after last night and not wanted the ball and gone out there and crumbled, and he certainly didn’t do that.”
Virginia left the bases loaded in the top of the seventh when a pitch that appeared low was called a third strike on Haseley. In the top of the ninth, two-out singles by Pinero and Haseley raised UVA’s hopes, but they were dashed moments later. W&M closer Joseph Gauouette induced a game-ending grounder, as the home fans in the crowd of 3,649 watched in disbelief.
The victory was the Tribe’s sixth straight in elimination games, a streak that finally ended Sunday night against ECU.
“They deserve all the credit in the world for winning the ballgame,” O’Connor said of the Colonial Athletic Association champions. “They deserved to win and they were better than us today, and unfortunately this ends our season. We have to handle that as men, as players and coaches. I feel for the guys that won’t have a chance to wear this uniform again, because I know how much it means to them and I know how much they’ve poured into it, but I congratulate William & Mary.”
Virginia entered the regional having won nine straight over W&M, including a 16-8 victory on March 1 at Davenport Field. Freshman left-hander Bodie Sheehan started for the Tribe in that game and gave up 10 hits and nine runs — seven unearned — in a little more than an inning.
His second start against UVA came Sunday, and Sheehan pitched much better. He lasted 5.2 innings, giving up eight hits and four runs against an offense that had destroyed the Tribe on Friday.
“We hit some balls hard,” Pinero said. “They just didn’t fall. We battled out there. [Sheehan] did a great job by holding our offense down.”
After the Saturday night loss to ECU, O’Connor considered starting the left-handed Haseley (9-3, 1.73) against William & Mary. But O’Connor said that as “the decision-maker of the program I felt it was important to put our team in the best position to win the entire tournament, and I felt like pitching Daniel Lynch … and holding Adam Haseley to potentially pitch [Sunday afternoon against ECU in] the first championship game, was the right thing to do, and I think it sent our team a message that we were here to win this thing and not necessarily win one game.”
In each of the past two College World Series Finals, Virginia and Vanderbilt played for the NCAA title. Neither will make it back to Omaha, Neb., this year. In Nashville, Tenn., the top-seeded Commodores went 0-2 this weekend. In Charlottesville, the Cavaliers went 1-2.
“We just didn’t quite have enough and didn’t do enough,” O’Connor said.
“That in no way is saying that we accept what has happened. We are never going to accept losing in this program, but we have to deal with it and understand it’s difficult this time of year.”
There’s pressure on a reigning NCAA champion, O’Connor acknowledged, but “certainly it’s a position that we’d like to be in again. Wouldn’t everybody? Because winning the national championship in this sport is really, really difficult.
“It’s tough, and I’m proud that we won it last year, [and] hopefully we get that opportunity again. It just wasn’t in the cards for us this year.”