CHARLOTTESVILLE — Two rain delays and 161 outs transpired at Davenport Field over the past three days before the Virginia baseball team finally caught the break Coach Brian O’Connor knew was vital to advancing to the College World Series.
The Cavaliers trailed by a run entering the bottom of the ninth Monday, and if haunting thoughts of last season’s end hadn’t crept into the mind of every Virginia fan in attendance, they did by the time the first two outs quickly were recorded.
But then, with a man on first, Cavaliers first baseman Jared King struck a single up the middle that ricocheted off the ankle of California Irvine’s pitcher, erasing the possibility for his shortstop to make a play.
Two batters later, Chris Taylor drilled a bases-loaded, super regional-winning, demon-chasing single that cemented a 3-2 Virginia win to send the Cavaliers back to Omaha for the second time in three seasons. This time last year, Virginia watched, humiliated, as another team dogpiled on its home field.
The Cavaliers (54-10) play California (37-21) Sunday at 2 p.m. in their opening CWS game.
“There’s been a lot to be made of about being the No. 1 seed and only having 10 losses, No. 1 in the country for most of the year: Can Virginia handle the pressure?” O’Connor said. “And it is a lot of pressure. There’s no question about it. But you can’t hide from it. You’ve just got to attack it and embrace it, and that’s what our guys have done.”
O’Connor’s outlook was slightly different heading into the bottom of the ninth. With the score tied in the top of the frame, Irvine third baseman Brian Hernandez bunted in an attempt to advance the runner at first. Virginia catcher John Hicks fielded the ball and rifled it high and wide to second base.
Taylor, who was covering second, said he had a number of thoughts running through his head at that moment. Stay on the bag. Watch the throw. Catch the ball.
“Maybe I was being a little too careful,” Taylor said. “Maybe I was thinking too much. I don’t know.”
Virginia shouldered heavy expectations all weekend, which might help to explain the tightness experienced by Taylor and his teammates. The Cavaliers had been in this situation before, and it had ended poorly. They won the first game of the super regional they hosted against Oklahoma last season before the Sooners snatched the final two to claim the ticket to Omaha.
And so, in the top of the ninth on Monday, despite Taylor’s best intentions, the ball bounced off his glove and trickled into the outfield. The Irvine runner advanced to third and scored in the next at-bat to give the Anteaters (43-18) the lead.
Matt Summers — the Big West Pitcher of the Year who threw 93 pitches in his start Saturday — quickly retired Virginia’s first two batters in the bottom of the ninth.
“It’s as bad as it gets,” O’Connor said. “Our first two at-bats, honestly, weren’t real competitive. [Summers] was just blowing us away.”
The next batter, right fielder David Coleman, singled with two strikes against him to sustain the possibility of a rally.
“We were down to our last strike,” said Virginia starter Will Roberts, who allowed one run on five hits and a walk in 71 / 3 innings of work. “And then once [Coleman] did that, we had some hope.”
King’s shot up the middle bounced off Summers’s glove and then his ankle. Irvine Coach Mike Gillespie said he “didn’t have a guy that we wanted to bring into that situation,” so he left Summers in.
“There’s no question when you play great opponents like we played this weekend that a break has to go your way at some point in order to win the thing,” O’Connor said. “Maybe that was our break.”
Four pitches later, Summers had walked pinch-hitter Reed Gragnani to load the bases and bring Taylor to the plate. To that point in the series, Taylor had hit 5 for 11.
“There’s not a lot of guys on that team that we would have liked to seen come up in that situation,” Gillespie said. “He perhaps, well, maybe least of all, and on the short list of least of all.”
Taylor let the first pitch go by. It was strike one, and Taylor was upset he hadn’t swung.
But then Taylor laced Summers’s second offering into center field, and suddenly he wasn’t so upset anymore. As pinch-runner Corey Hunt, the winning run, crossed home plate, the Cavaliers stormed the field — their field — and did what they couldn’t do a year ago: Form a dogpile and plan for Omaha.
“I don’t know what else to say,” O’Connor said. “Absolutely the most thrilling win in U-Va. baseball history, and it happens to come on our home field.”