By Scott Cacciola
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 8, 2009
OXFORD, Miss., June 7 -- The Virginia baseball team spent some quiet moments during pregame warmups on Sunday doing visualization drills in the outfield at Oxford-University Stadium. Coach Brian O'Connor started the ritual when he arrived in Charlottesville during the summer of 2003, and he thinks of it as one last opportunity for his players to clear their heads of any clutter that could affect them during the game.
So with a chance to advance to their first College World Series, the Cavaliers lined up in a pair of neat rows, rested their bats against their shoulders, bowed their heads and imagined the possibilities.
Dream became reality by the end of the afternoon, as Virginia ousted Mississippi from the NCAA tournament with a 5-1 victory in the decisive game of their best-of-three super regional. And the Cavaliers, who formed a massive dogpile in the infield after the final out, are Omaha-bound.
"I think I've got a few cracked ribs, black eye, broken elbow," said starting pitcher Robert Poutier, a senior who was somewhere at the bottom of the celebration. "But the pain is definitely worth it."
Virginia (48-13-1) stole six bases, limited Mississippi to seven hits and capitalized on an error to break open a 1-1 game with three runs in the fourth. Freshman Steven Proscia led off with a single, stole second and then scored on junior Franco Valdes's single up the middle. Sophomore John Barr then grounded into what could have been a double play, but the ball skipped past shortstop Kevin Mort.
The error was enormous. Junior Tyler Cannon scored Valdes on a sacrifice fly, and Barr came around on a single by sophomore Phil Gosselin.
"They bunched some hits together, and the last two days we couldn't stop them on the base paths," Mississippi Coach Mike Bianco said. "Something we've been able to do all year is control the steal. But they were too good."
It was the most electric and inhospitable environment the Cavaliers had ever experienced. Sellout crowds packed the stadium all weekend. Some Mississippi students even camped out overnight to get the best seats on the knoll beyond center field, eager to see if Mississippi (44-20), making its fourth super regional appearance in five seasons, could earn its first trip to the College World Series since 1972.
But the Cavaliers have proven to be a resilient bunch. They claimed the ACC tournament championship after finishing the regular season in sixth place, then rolled through the NCAA tournament regional at UC Irvine -- regarded as the toughest in the bracket -- without a loss.
The super regional featured some drama, and Mississippi claimed Friday's Game 1 with a walk-off home run in the 12th inning. The Rebels were five outs from clinching the series Saturday, but Virginia scored two unearned runs in the eighth for a 4-3 victory to force a third game.
Asked after Saturday's game about his pitching rotation, O'Connor said, "I don't know where we go from here." Senior Andrew Carraway had been penciled in as the Cavaliers' Game 3 starter, but O'Connor summoned him from the bullpen during a crucial moment in Game 2. It was a move born of desperation: A loss on Saturday would have ended Virginia's season.
By Sunday, O'Connor knew he was running short on starters, the grind of the tournament taking an inevitable toll, so he hoped to manufacture a victory by committee. He started Poutier, whose NCAA tournament debut was brief. He gave up a run-scoring single to Mississippi's Matt Smith in the first, then gave way to right-handed reliever Tyler Wilson with two outs in the third. Wilson struck out Smith to strand a pair of runners, and that established a theme for Virginia's relievers. Wilson, junior Matt Packer and sophomore Kevin Arico combined to pitch 6 1/3 scoreless innings.
"My friend told me that Omaha will happen when you least expect it," O'Connor said. "This group of men really accomplished something special."