By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009
OMAHA, June 17 -- The game finally concluded almost two hours after it appeared it would. It could have ended with one more strike in the top of the ninth inning, or one more ball in the bottom of the ninth inning. But in the bottom of the 12th inning and with the game-tying run 90 feet away, Franco Valdes struck out to end Virginia's season with a 4-3 loss to Arkansas after 4 hours 46 minutes in an elimination game in the College World Series.
In a postseason that seemed to test Virginia's resolve with any opportunity, the Cavaliers finally ran out of luck in the 12th inning despite multiple opportunities to prolong their season.
Fans had already started to trickle up the alleys of Rosenblatt Stadium in the top of the ninth inning, resigned to a finale that appeared one strike away. But when Virginia closer Kevin Arico allowed two-strike, two-out single while nursing a two-run lead in Wednesday's elimination game, the Razorbacks had life.
Three pitches later, Arkansas sophomore Brett Eibner sent Arico's pitch into the left field bleachers. The game was tied, and the night that seconds earlier appeared so prosperous for the Cavaliers now appeared so tenuous.
"I told them that I couldn't take the hurt and pain away from them, because I know that it means so much to them," Virginia Coach Brian O'Connor said. "I know that they felt coming here that we could legitimately win the national championship. When you put so much into something all year long -- through fall baseball, through winter workouts -- and you have everything right there in front of them, and it doesn't happen, it's painful."
The night again appeared to tilt in Virginia's favor when the Cavaliers had runners on second and third base with only one out in the bottom of the ninth inning. Arkansas intentionally walked Tyler Cannon to load the bases and create a double-play situation with one out. After taking three straight balls to start the at-bat, Danny Hultzen hit a 3-1 pitch right to the shortstop for the as-designed double play.
Another pristine scoring opportunity came in the bottom of the 10th inning, when the Cavaliers had runners on first and third base with one out. Jarrett Parker and John Hicks both struck out, though, as the Cavaliers again faltered in the clutch.
In the 11th inning, Virginia had the bases loaded and two outs for clean-up hitter Dan Grovatt, who earlier had hit a home run. But when a base hit was needed, Grovatt hit a dribbler to second base for the third out.
Arkansas responded in the 12th inning with a run, forcing Virginia to either capitalize in the bottom of the inning or return to Charlottesville after a historic season but a disappointing finale. Steven Proscia led off with a double, and advanced to third base while Parker whiffed on a third strike for the first out of the inning. Hicks followed with another strikeout, and the game-tying run remained 90 feet away.
The final innings overshadowed a memorable pitching performance by Hultzen, whose freshman season had already entered Virginia baseball lore even before he took the Rosenblatt Stadium mound on only three days of rest.
Hultzen was approached by O'Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn about starting Wednesday's game. Hultzen did not simply agree. He demanded the ball. Never mind that Hultzen last pitched on Saturday and typically receives a week between starts. He wanted the Cavaliers' season to hinge on his left arm.
Hultzen did not allow an earned run in 6 1/3 innings, striking out seven and allowing only five hits.
Virginia's first two runs came in the fifth inning -- and the first seemed in question when Hicks stood on second base while the umpires debated whether he hit a home run.
The television replay showed that Hicks clearly ripped the ball over the left field fence, and it fell into play only because a yellow-shirted fan in the first row of the bleachers was not a particularly capable outfielder. The ball hit the fan's mitt and fell right back into left field -- "E-Bleachers," for those keeping score.
The umpires concluded the meeting swirling their index fingers, and Hicks finished the second half of a home run trot to give the Cavaliers a 1-0 lead in the fifth inning.
Virginia scored its third run in the bottom of the eighth inning when Grovatt smashed his eighth home run of the season to give Virginia a two-run lead. The lead could have increased, but Parker's double with Proscia already on first base was for naught when Proscia hesitated after passing third base and ended up caught in a rundown.
As it turned out, the Cavaliers could have used Proscia's run. Arico could not close the game, setting up the theatrics that will likely make Wednesday's game one of the lasting memories of the 2009 College World Series, and undoubtedly the lasting memory of the Cavaliers' season.
"This team will always be remembered as the first team to play in the College World Series at the University of Virginia," O'Connor said. "We're looking forward to the future, and hopefully we can have these opportunities again."