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A season of redemption: Virginia Baseball is back

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Teammates greet Chris Newell after his fifth-inning homer. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

The 2021 season was a season of redemption for Virginia Baseball – for the team, for individual players, for coach Brian O’Connor, as preposterous as that sounds.

Odd as it is to have to say, plenty of keyboard warriors were out there saying that Oak’s best days might have been in the rear view, as the 2015 national title was followed by a four-year absence from postseason play, and this year’s slow start – 11-14 on April 1, 22-21 on May 4 – seemed to portend another quiet June.

Somehow, some way, O’Connor figured out a way into the NCAA Tournament, around losses in the openers in the Columbia Regional and Super Regional, to get back to Omaha for the fifth time.

That he did it with a team that was under .500 in April, barely over going into its May exam break, with pitchers who had been on the scrap heap, with a lineup that was slashing 226/.318/.329 and averaging 4.6 runs per game on April Fools’ Day, maybe the guy knows what he’s doing.

O’Connor: redeemed.

Think Mike Vasil, had gone more than four and a third innings just once since April 24, a stretch in which he had given up 18 earned runs in 18.1 innings (8.83 ERA) with a 2.62 WHIP and a 10/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

In that stretch, Vasil has had three starts end with him coming off the mound in the third inning, including his disastrous effort in the first elimination game of the Columbia Regional, back on June 5, in which he was charged with five runs on seven hits in two-plus in what turned into a 13-8 win over Jacksonville.

Vasil redeemed himself Thursday night in Omaha, giving his team seven innings, giving up two runs, one earned, on four hits, striking out eight, walking one.

Think Griff McGarry. McGarry opened the 2021 season as a weekend starter, but was out of the rotation after the April 1 loss at Georgia Tech that dropped UVA to 11-14 on the season.

He technically got one more start in the regular season, a midweek game at VCU on April 20, but that was the nadir – McGarry didn’t record a single out, walking three and hitting a batter before getting the hook after 21 pitches, only seven of which went for strikes.

O’Connor used McGarry to close out the combined 17-0 no-hitter on May 14 over Wake Forest, in which he struck out three and walked one in an otherwise clean inning, then he got another low-stress inning in the 9-2 win at Boston College on May 21, giving up a hit and walking a batter in a scoreless ninth to close that one out.

That’s two outings, two innings, in a month and a half.

Literally he was trusted only to be used for an inning with a big lead.

He pitched the game of his life twice as Virginia fought its way to Omaha, pitching seven shutout innings in the Game 2 Super Regional win over Dallas Baptist, then seven and a third no-hit innings in the Game 2 College World Series loss to Mississippi State.

McGarry, like Vasil, redeemed himself from the scrap heap to now being a projected second- or third-round pick in next month’s MLB Draft.

Think Chris Newell, preseason second-team All-American, who struggled mightily in ACC play this season, slashing .235/.328/.322, going from All-American to nine-hole hitter as the season wore on.

Newell hit a game-tying two-run homer in Game 3 in Omaha, one of his two dingers at TD Ameritrade, after a 3-for-4 day in Game 2 that included an eighth-inning homer, as he slashed .600/.636/1.300.

You heard the ESPN guys last night. Every time Newell was at bat, you were reminded how disappointing his 2021 season was.

Newell: redeemed.

And yet, it had to come to an end, as all things must, and in sports, before it comes to an end, there needs to be a bloodletting with the media, to make sense of it all.

O’Connor, being O’Connor, made it all about his team when he addressed reporters early Friday morning, after 2 a.m. Eastern Time, the start of what ended up being the season finale delayed three hours and 45 minutes from its scheduled 6 p.m. local start by weather, a delay that, fittingly, made it so that the clock literally struck midnight locally before things would unravel on the ‘Hoos.

“There were high expectations on this team. I think preseason this team was ranked in the top 20. There was a lot of expectation. And out of the gate, we didn’t play up to our capability. They knew it. We all knew it. We were trying to work through it. We were all trying to figure it out,” O’Connor said.

“Just what I’ll remember about them is they just stood up and competed and were not going to be denied of this opportunity to play in June. And many teams at times fold when that happens. And they just wouldn’t let it happen. They kept grinding.”

That would be the case in the finale. Down 2-0 in the fifth, with Texas starter Pete Hansen dealing, Newell would knot things up with a Ruthian shot, a high-arcing drive that needed to file a flight plan before landing in the Texas bullpen in right, and we were still there in the eighth because of Vasil’s heroics, getting his team through seven, only the second time this season that he had gone that far in a start.

The eighth brought us another redemption project on the mound, in the form of Matt Wyatt, who had started one game in the regular season, getting knocked out in the first inning of a 10-2 loss to Liberty in March, before giving UVA five scoreless innings in the 3-2 elimination-game win over South Carolina on June 6, ahead of going five and two-thirds scoreless to get the win in relief in Game 3 of the Super Regional to send the Cavaliers to the CWS.

Wyatt then notched a save with three scoreless innings of relief in the Game 1 win over Tennessee back on Sunday, which is to say, he was the guy you wanted on the mound last night with the game on the line.

It wasn’t meant to be – Wyatt gave up a two-out RBI single to Ivan Melendez that broke the 2-2 tie, and he’d be lifted after a four-pitch walk to Douglas Hodo to lead off the ninth.

The ninth would go off the rails from there – the ‘Horns, twice, wanted to give UVA an out via the sac bunt, but reliever Zach Messinger misplayed the first into a bunt single, and hit the batter the second time, loading the bases with nobody out.

After battling back to get two down, and getting ahead of Zach Zubia 1-2, Zubia worked the count to 3-2, taking a high fastball, fouling a second high heater back, then holding off on a nasty 2-2 slider, ahead of ripping the get-over full-count fastball into the gap in left-center, clearing the bases.

‘Twas a gut punch.

Virginia would get Jake Gelof on first with a two-out infield single, but Logan Michaels, who had made the baseball-watching world tear up and snot bubble with his homer in his first CWS at bat on Sunday, Father’s Day, his dad, Jeff, a pancreatic cancer survivor, cheering wildly from his seat behind the UVA dugout, grounded out to short to end it.

Michaels, you may remember, had considered stepping away from baseball when his father was diagnosed with cancer in 2018, persevered, came back after COVID for a second senior season, hit his first homer of 2021 in Omaha.

You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

Players and coaches would linger on the field after the final out for several minutes afterward, not believing it was over, not wanting it to be over.

Seriously, it’s over?

O’Connor’s message to his guys: “What they persevered through, the resiliency that they have shown the last two months, but specifically over the last two weeks, is just remarkable. I told them that all the teams that we have at Virginia are all special in their own way, but this one is at the top.”

“I told the team after the game that this is going to hurt, it’s going to hurt for a while, it should hurt,” O’Connor said. “When you put the time into it and care so much like these young men do about their team and the success they want to have, it’s going to hurt. But I told them that after they get over the pain of the season being over and losing, they’ll realize what they did and the lessons that they learn from what they endured through this season.

“It will help them next year, for the ones that are back, and then it’s going to help them for the rest of their lives. And that’s what this experience is about, and I’m proud as heck of them,” O’Connor said.

It was so late, because of the weather delay, that only one player, Newell, was made available to the media postgame.

As he talked with reporters, you could see reality beginning to sink in.

“It definitely was our goal to get here and win a national championship. We did one of those things, and unfortunately missed out on the other. But just from what happened last year and to this year, it’s just unbelievable how close all of us have gotten together. And just sad to see it end the way that it did,” Newell said.

The emotions were still raw, fresh – his teammates were still commiserating on the field as he talked, which you can understand for a group that had been playing with its backs against the wall since April 1 and somehow had kept the line moving in spite of it all.

It couldn’t be over. Just couldn’t be.

“We just talked about the position we were in in April and where we were at, and I completely agree with (O’Connor). There’s no reason that we should come out of here with our heads down, because, I mean, we really did do something special as a group,” Newell said. “From where we were at, and it really says a lot about this club this year. I’m just so proud of everybody just top to bottom. There’s really nothing else that you can ask for.”

Virginia Baseball in 2021 was a story of redemption, resilience, a DH with a shoulder injury pitching four scoreless innings and hitting a walk-off homer, Dippin’ Dots and caves, helmets flying off heads on swings from the heels, jerseys not buttoned all the way to the top.

We wouldn’t have had any of it if the season had ended in Chestnut Hill or in Charlotte.

And for that, we owe you guys big time.

“They could have packed it in, and they didn’t, and that speaks to the character that they have and what they’re made of,” O’Connor said. “And in baseball that will serve them well, and they’ll have successful careers after this year, and I know they’ll be terrific fathers and make great contributions to society because of what they stood up and did this year.”

Two hundred ninety-three D1 teams started the year thinking, dreaming, wishing, hoping against hope, that their seasons would end in Omaha.

Eight would get there. Seven of them, and the other 286, were doomed to end with an L.

This Virginia team came up short in its finale, but its season didn’t end in defeat.

“It was this team’s experience. It was guys that will never wear this uniform again. It was their last opportunity to achieve something that is really, really great. I’m just happy for them — happy for them that they did what they did, had the experience of playing in Omaha, to compete for a national championship. They’re winners,” O’Connor said.

Story by Chris Graham


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