"I know the character of the young men in our uniform and I know they'll be ready to play" – Coach O'Connor.
See you tomorrow. pic.twitter.com/GyWLnBvNPP
— Virginia Baseball (@UVABaseball) June 9, 2023
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Losing the first game of a best-of-three super regional in the NCAA baseball tournament is less than ideal, but it’s no reason to lose hope. University of Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor knows that as well as anyone.
Facing elimination in 2009, UVA rallied on the road for back-to-back wins over Ole Miss to advance to the College World Series for the first time in program history.
In 2014, playing at home, the Wahoos dropped the opening game of their super regional with Maryland yet still ended up at the CWS in Omaha, Neb., and they followed a similar path in 2021.
After losing to Dallas Baptist that year in the first game of their super regional in Columbia, S.C., Virginia won two straight to reach the College World Series for the fifth time. And so the Hoos were disappointed but not despondent Friday afternoon after losing 5-4 to ACC rival Duke at Disharoon Park.
His players, O’Connor said, are competitors who “believe they should win every time they step on the field, and that’s a great quality. That said, I told the team after the game that after they take a little bit of time to process this, it’s one game in a three-game series. And I know the character of the young men that we have that wear our uniform, and I know that they’ll be ready to play tomorrow and there won’t be any carryover from today.”
Game 2 of the super regional is Saturday at noon, and O’Connor said he expects junior left-hander Connelly Early (11-2, 3.35 ERA) to start for the Cavaliers (48-13). Early, a transfer from Army, was named the most outstanding player of last weekend’s NCAA regional at Disharoon Park.
In front of a sellout crowd of 5,919 on Friday, the Cavaliers led 4-3 after seven innings, only to see the Blue Devils (39-22) rally for two runs in the top of the eighth.
Down to their last out, the Hoos nearly pulled off a dramatic comeback. In the bottom of the ninth, with UVA fans on their feet and buzzing with anticipation, junior Jake Gelof, the program’s leader in career home runs, strode to the plate with runners on first and second.
Duke closer James Tallon, a freshman left-hander, had retired the first two batters he faced in the ninth, but Griff O’Ferrall singled to put the tying run on base for UVA, and Ethan O’Donnell followed by drawing a walk.
“Jake Gelof has delivered for this team for three years,” O’Connor said. “He’s had a lot of big moments, and once O.D. got on, I thought it was scripted the way we’d want it. We got the guy up that you believe in, that’s delivered RBIs in his entire career.”
With the count 2-1, Gelof belted a Tallon pitch to deep left field, and for a few heart-stopping moments it appeared the Hoos might have their Hollywood ending.
“Off the bat, I was a little nervous,” Duke right-fielder Damon Lux said. “He’s a great hitter, great player, and he comes up big in clutch situations.”
Gelof has hit 22 home runs this season, but No. 23 eluded him Friday. Left-fielder Tyler Albright came down with the ball at the wall to secure the win for the Blue Devils.
“Sometimes this game of baseball is a game of inches,” said O’Connor, who’s in his 20th season with the Cavaliers, who won the NCAA title in 2015.
The Blue Devils advanced to this super regional by winning the double-elimination regional last weekend in Conway, S.C., where they were seeded No. 2, behind host Coastal Carolina. Against Virginia, the Devils totaled 10 hits Friday, including a two-run homer by Lux in the top of the third.
Lux’s blast put Duke up 2-0, but the Cavaliers responded with a run in the bottom of the third. After the Devils stretched their lead to 3-1 in the fifth, Virginia battled back again. Gelof led off the bottom of the sixth with a double and then scored on a single by junior catcher Kyle Teel, the ACC Player of the Year.
An RBI groundout by sophomore Anthony Stephan tied the game at 3-3, and freshman Henry Godbout’s sacrifice fly gave the Hoos their first lead of the game.
It didn’t hold up. Before Friday, Virginia had won 81 games in a row when leading after the seventh inning, but Duke rallied for two runs in the eighth, and that was enough. Sophomore right-hander Jay Woolfolk started the eighth for UVA but gave way to junior left-hander Jake Berry after allowing two singles.
The loss did not shake O’Connor’s faith in Virginia’s bullpen. “Tomorrow, the key is going to be getting off to a good start and a deep start based on where we’re at right now,” he said, “but I’ve got a lot of confidence in those guys. They’ve done the job all year long. A big reason why we have one of the top 10 ERAs in the country is we’ve been very, very consistent, and so I expect that tomorrow.”
Duke head coach Chris Pollard raved about the atmosphere at Disharoon Park and called the game “a real showcase for college baseball.”
O’Connor agreed. “What a college baseball game,” he said.
This super regional sold out quickly, and a similar scene is expected at the Dish on Saturday, where Virginia will look to force a winner-take-all Sunday game. Nick Parker said the opening-game loss won’t change the Cavaliers’ mentality.
“We’re gonna go out tomorrow,” Parker said, “and we’re gonna bring the fight to them. That’s what we do best. We’re gonna be aggressive. We’re gonna keep being aggressive. It’s just another day.”
Teel said: “It’s all about taking one game at a time.”
When these teams met during the regular season, Duke took two of three games from UVA at Disharoon Park. Parker, a graduate transfer from Coastal Carolina, was the winning pitcher in Virginia’s lone win in that series, and he started Friday against the Blue Devils.
Parker wasn’t as sharp as he had been against Duke on April 29, but he went 6.2 innings Friday before giving up way to freshman Evan Blanco, who needed only one pitch to record the final out in the seventh.
“Some days are a grind,” Parker said, “and I think today was a grind. [The Devils] made some good adjustments from the last time we played them. But so did we. At this point in the year, it’s just kind of survive and advance, and today was one of those survive-type mentalities: just kind of do what I can for the team to give us some life and keep the bullpen fresh for the next couple of days.”
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