CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the better part of seven hours Sunday afternoon, the outcome appeared inevitable. Virginia, the top overall seed in the NCAA baseball tournament, would wait out another rain delay before discarding California Irvine en route to its second College World Series appearance in three years.
The Cavaliers’ only concern for Monday, it seemed, would be arranging their travel plans for Omaha.
But when the rain finally stopped and the field had been satisfactorily squeegeed, Monday’s to-do list quickly became more stressful for a Virginia squad that has lived out this scenario before, to unflattering results. Irvine scored five runs against the Cavaliers’ bullpen and claimed a 6-4 victory that tied this best-of-three super regional at one game apiece.
The decisive third game will take place at 4 p.m. Monday and will be televised on ESPN2.
“Irvine deserved to win the ball game tonight,” Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor said. “They did a great job executing offensively in the back half of the game. . . . We’re disappointed. But the reason that we won Game 1 was that we have the opportunity to play” Monday.
The Cavaliers experienced a similar set of circumstances around this time last year. After defeating Oklahoma in the first game of a super regional series it was hosting, Virginia dropped the final two contests.
O’Connor and players said they will approach Monday’s game no differently in light of how last season ended. One year, they said, has nothing to do with the next, and confidence, they swore, remained high.
The Cavaliers (53-10) had better hope offensive momentum also is not transitive. When Virginia starter Tyler Wilson gave up a solo home run to Irvine left fielder Drew Hillman in the sixth, Anteaters Coach Mike Gillespie said, it “changed the mentality for us in the dugout. Everybody got electrified.”
At that point, Virginia still led by two, and Irvine had just tallied its first run in 14 innings. But the Anteaters (43-17) tied the score in the seventh against Wilson’s replacement, Justin Thompson.
With a man on first, Irvine second baseman Tommy Reyes hit a single into centerfield, and the ball skimmed under centerfielder Kenny Swab’s glove and through his legs. The error plated the Irvine runner and allowed Reyes to advance to second. Reyes scored when Irvine catcher Ronnie Shaeffer singled in the following at-bat.
“The field conditions were fine,” Swab said. “I just didn’t make a play on the ball to keep it in front of me, and I should have done that, just to allow the runner not to score.”
Field conditions were, at the very least, altered after a rain delay that lasted 4 hours 18 minutes. The Cavaliers sat through a 1 hour 24 minute rain delay before putting the finishing touches on a 6-0 victory in Game 1, but that pattern did not hold true Sunday.
The Cavaliers entered Sunday having outscored their previous four opponents 35-3, and the effectiveness of their starters during that span led to minimal work for their relievers. O’Connor acknowledged that this was a concern that had lingered in the back of his mind.
When Branden Kline, one of the top closers in the nation, took the mound in the eighth, it was his second appearance since May 21. With one out and a man on second, Kline entered the game and hit the first batter he faced. Two batters later, he gave up a two-run double to Irvine’s designated hitter, Jordan Leyland. An RBI single in the next at-bat provided the final margin.
And so, for the second straight year, Virginia will enter a decisive Game 3 shouldering nearly all of the pressure. By Sunday night, the outcome of this series seemed anything but inevitable.
“Everything you want is right out in front of you tomorrow, and that’s what I told the players,” O’Connor said. “They’ll turn the page, and they’ll be ready to go” Monday.