Roughly two and a half hours before the start of the game that largely would determine how this season in Virginia baseball was remembered, Coach Brian O’Connor met with his team down the left field line, a short distance from the dugout they would use Monday.
Some of the players were telling jokes, but O’Connor drew the group’s attention when he pointed to a spot on his belt where the blue coloring was tarnished. The players asked him what had happened. That, he told them, was the result of the last time they’d given him a Gatorade bath, after the Cavaliers had won the ACC tournament two weeks earlier in Durham, N.C.
The players told him he’d receive another one later that night, and about five and a half hours later, they stayed true to their word. Following Virginia’s dramatic 3-2 victory over California-Irvine in Game Three of the super regional series held at Davenport Field – a win that sent the Cavaliers to their second College World Series in three years – O’Connor found himself doused with Gatorade once again as he prepared to do a television interview.
His uniform still was a little sticky as he retold that story in his postgame press conference, but he didn’t seem to mind. O’Connor’s team had been one out – one strike, actually – from being eliminated in a super regional at home for the second straight year.
Instead, Virginia will play California at 2 p.m. on Sunday in their opening round CWS game. The Bears have an interesting story of their own, what with the school announcing last fall a plan to cut the baseball program before enough money was raised to keep it alive.
But we can get more into that later. After a year of living with the humiliation that followed last season’s super regional outcome*, Monday night was all about the most recent accomplishment in what has been a remarkable season for the Cavaliers. They are 54-10, the NCAA baseball tournament’s top overall seed and – most importantly – booked for a trip to Omaha.
*You all remember that Oklahoma series, right? The one where Virginia claimed Game One, then lost the second and third games before having to watch the Sooners dogpile on Davenport Field? Since the Cavaliers knocked off Irvine and avoided a repeat performance, we promise not to bring that up too many more times this season.
But heading into the bottom of the ninth, Virginia’s hopes appeared nearly dashed. The Cavaliers had to face Matt Summers, the Big West Pitcher of the Year who’d started and thrown 93 pitches for Irvine on Saturday.
In the Virginia dugout, pitching coach Karl Kuhn walked up and down the bench wondering aloud which Cavaliers player was going to write the game’s headline for the Tuesday newspapers.
It wasn’t designated hitter Danny Hultzen or centerfielder Kenny Swab*, who quickly were retired. And for most of his at-bat, it didn’t appear as though it was going to be right fielder David Coleman, either.
*Swab did hit a solo home run – his first of the season – in the sixth inning to tie the game at 1-1. It was a crucial hit for a Virginia offense that to that point hadn’t done much of anything against slow-pitching Irvine starter Crosby Slaught and reliever Jimmy Litchfield.
But with two strikes against him, Coleman struck a single. Then first baseman Jared King hit the ball off Summers’s ankle and reached base safely. Then Summers walked pinch hitter Reed Gragnani on four straight pitches.
Then shortstop Chris Taylor stepped to the plate. Irvine’s manager said Taylor was among the Virginia hitters he least wanted to see take an at-bat at that particular moment. After all, Taylor had been making good contact all series long.
After taking a first-pitch strike, Taylor sent Summers’s second offering into centerfield, a hit that brought home the tying and winning runs. The Cavaliers dogpiled on their home field and then bathed their coach in Gatorade, potentially ruining his belt for good.
And then they began to look ahead to Omaha.