By Jeff White (email@example.com)
FORT WORTH, Texas — For a college baseball team, losing its first game in an NCAA regional usually proves disastrous.
Virginia, finally playing after arriving in this town Wednesday, avoided such a scenario Saturday night at Lupton Stadium. In the double-elimination regional hosted by No. 1 seed TCU, the second-seeded Cavaliers never trailed in a 6-3 victory over third-seeded Dallas Baptist.
Now comes a critical second game for UVA. At 5 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, Virginia (43-14) takes on TCU (43-16), with the winner advancing to the regional final.
“Your big advantage in this tournament certainly is if you go 2-0,” UVA head coach Brian O’Connor said Saturday night. “You can’t go 2-0 unless you go 1-0, right? And so you win that first one, the second one has the same significance as the first one.
“We’ve taken that first step, and we’ll have an opportunity [Sunday] to see where we’re at, and I know our guys will be excited.”
The Wahoos did not know for sure that they would play the Horned Frogs, who are seeded No. 6 overall in the NCAA tourney, until early Sunday. TCU’s game with fourth-seeded Central Connecticut State started at 10:45 p.m. Eastern on Saturday. (The Frogs won 9-6.)
Blame Mother Nature. This regional was scheduled to begin Friday afternoon, but heavy rains made the field unplayable, and UVA and Dallas Baptist were sent back to their respective hotels after a long day at the ball park. Saturday brought more downpours, and that delayed the start of the opener for four more hours.
Virginia’s Derek Casey threw the game’s first pitch at 7:04 p.m. Eastern. By the time UVA closer Tommy Doyle recorded the final out Saturday night, 14 teams had been eliminated from a tournament that began with 64.
“We definitely had a lot of down time,” said Casey, a 6-1, 195-pound right-hander.
Still, that didn’t give Casey any more butterflies. “It honestly probably took them away,” he said, “just kind of laying low and hanging out with the guys and talking.”
The outcome was a familiar one for the Cavaliers, who have advanced to the NCAA tournament in each of O’Connor’s 14 seasons as their coach. They have won nine straight regional openers.
Of UVA’s starting position players Saturday night, Novak and Weber were the only ones not hitting at least .320. Still, Dallas Baptist head coach Dan Heefner said, if “they’re going to be in the lineup, you know they’re good hitters and they’re going to be able to do some damage to you.”
In a UVA lineup stocked with players who can hit for average and for power — including juniors Adam Haseley, Pavin Smith, Ernie Clement and sophomores Jake McCarthy and Cameron Simmons — Novak and Weber occasionally can be overlooked.
“I’m not saying our pitchers let up at all when they got to that point [in UVA’s lineup],” Heefner said, “but that’s what happens with an offense like that. They can just wear you down, guy after guy after guy. Eventually somebody’s going to get to you, and today it was the bottom two guys for them.”
O’Connor said: “A lot is said and written about our lineup. What makes our lineup special, and it was showcased tonight, is the two-strike approach, the hits that we got with two strikes.”
One was graduate student Robbie Coman’s two-run double that pushed Virginia’s lead to 6-2 in the fifth inning. Two of the Cavaliers’ hits in the third, when they scored three runs to take a 3-0 lead, came with two strikes.
“Our guys battle, they stick their nose in there, they’re not going to give in,” O’Connor said, “and when you do that over a consistent period of time you’re rewarded.
“We don’t strike out much, because it’s a tough, hard-nosed approach. We were rewarded with that tonight.”
Sophomore left-hander Daniel Lynch (7-4, 4.94 earned-run average) is likely to start for Virginia against TCU. The Frogs will counter with sophomore right-hander Jared Janczak (8-0, 1.99 ERA). If Lynch is anywhere near as effective as Casey was Saturday night, the Cavaliers’ chances of advancing to the regional final will improve significantly.
Casey, a junior, retired the first nine batters he faced. He gave up three home runs — the Patriots have hit 87 this season — but each came with the bases empty. He finished with three strikeouts and no walks in seven innings, matching the longest appearance of his injury-married UVA career.
“His best outing of the year,” O’Connor said. “Best outing of his career, really. He picked a great time for it.”
Coman said Casey has had “quality starts leading up to this one, so I wasn’t surprised at all. I knew he was going to go out there and compete and give us a chance to win, and he certainly did that.”
Facing Dallas Baptist, “you’re on the edge of your seat, pitching to those guys,” O’Connor said, “because they have so many threats that can hit the ball out of the ballpark. They’re very aggressive, and I thought Derek did a tremendous job.”
Casey said: “I knew they were going to hit the ball hard, and I was trying to keep the ball down in the zone and throw strikes and not walk people and put them on base. Then when the home run comes, it’s a two- or three-run home run.”
As a freshman, Casey posted a 4-1 record as a midweek starter before suffering a season-ending elbow injury in April 2015. He needed Tommy John surgery and missed all of the 2016 season.
He began this year in a midweek role before moving into the weekend rotation in early April. Casey earned the victory Saturday to improve his record to 5-2. His ERA is 3.79.
“Sometimes the game makes it difficult [for players],” O’Connor said, “and certainly none of us planned for what happened to him his first year with us. But he’s sitting here today proof that if you work hard, you stay with it, and you trust and believe in the people around you and you believe in yourself, that you can be in this situation. He’s worked extremely hard to be in this position, and when you work that hard and you’re loyal, you get rewarded, and I’m just really, really proud of him.”
In the first elimination game of this regional, Dallas Baptist will play Central Connecticut State (36-21) on Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern. Weather permitting, the winner will meet the UVA-TCU loser in another elimination game Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern. The regional is scheduled to conclude with one or two games Monday.