Resilient ‘Hoos punch ticket to Omaha
Much has been made about how Virginia was so good the past two weekends playing with its back against the wall, but that’s selling the ‘Hoos short by quite a bit.
This team has been playing with its back against the wall for more than a month now, since a blown ninth-inning lead at home against VCU sent the Cavaliers into their exam break with a 22-21 record, and no margin for error after exams were over.
“Just the commitment, the decision that they made to run to it rather than run away from it, they’ll have that strength and that feeling the rest of their lives,” UVA coach Brian O’Connor said after his team punched its ticket to Omaha and the 2021 College World Series, with a 5-2 win in the deciding Game 3 of its Super Regional series with Dallas Baptist.
“We’re going to be ready to roll in Omaha, I can promise you, on Saturday. What this team has accomplished, to have the opportunity to go there, is just remarkable. I’m just incredibly proud for them,” O’Connor said.
The 2021 ‘Hoos were, memorably, 4-12 in the ACC after a loss in a series opener at Georgia Tech on April 1.
After taking two of three at Virginia Tech in early May, the loss to VCU – 7-5, in a game that Virginia led 5-0 in the seventh, and 5-3 going into the ninth – seemed to foretell another close, but no cigar with respect to the NCAA Tournament.
The Cavaliers took five of six from Wake Forest and Boston College in the final two weekends of the regular season, then defeated Virginia Tech and Notre Dame to get to the ACC Tournament semifinals, sewing up a three seed in the Columbia Regional.
A loss in the opener to host South Carolina sent UVA into the losers’ bracket, meaning the ‘Hoos would have to win four in a row to get to the Super Regionals.
O’Connor and pitching coach Drew Dickinson figured their way around a depleted pitching staff, coaxing outings out of little-used Matt Wyant, banished former weekend starter Griff McGarry and designated hitter Devin Ortiz, who had thrown all of two innings this season before giving Virginia four scoreless before blasting the game-winning walkoff homer in the bottom of the 10th in the 4-3 win over ODU in the regional championship game.
Dallas Baptist took Game 1 of the Super Regional, 6-5, and Virginia had to navigate through an uncomfortably tight scoreless battle before the offense erupted for four runs in the bottom of the eighth in what turned into a 4-0 win in Game 2.
Which got us to today. O’Connor went with lefty Nate Savino, who gave up a two-run homer to Jackson Glenn in the third, before being lifted with one out in the fourth in favor of the formerly little-used Wyatt.
Wyatt, who gave UVA five scoreless innings in a 3-2 elimination-game win over South Carolina last weekend, has MLB-quality stuff – a fastball that regularly touches 95-96 mph, a slider from the same arm slot as his fastball that is hard to pick up out of his hand, and he’s finally putting it together, and at just the right time.
“Just going out there and pitching, I just wanted to keep putting up zeroes,” said Wyatt, who would finish things out, holding DBU scoreless over five and two-thirds, striking out eight, walking two, and allowing two hits.
“I was confident eventually something would get rolling with the offense, and getting those bases loaded with Kyle (Teel) up, I was thinking in the back of my mind, I’m like, a grand slam would have been nice here. And the guy was throwing a lot of sliders, and I was like, come on, Kyle, just sit slider, you’re going to get this one, and he got it,” Wyatt said.
Teel’s moment came in the bottom of the seventh, with UVA down 2-1, bases loaded, two down. Teel worked a 2-2 count off lefty reliever Peyton Sherlin, who came back with another slider to try to get the punchout.
“I try and feel the same, do the same thing every time I go up there, with knowing what I want to do and executing, so for me, it’s just let the ball travel, swing hard,” Teel said. “That first pitch I got, I was out in front. I thought he was going to keep throwing me that pitch, and he did. He’s a great pitcher. I just sat back and hit it hard.”
Hard, and out, for the grand slam that Wyatt had been mulling over in the back of his head, and a 5-2 lead.
It was then up to Wyatt to close it out, and he got the Patriots out in order in the eighth, then got the first two out in the ninth before surrendering a two-out single to left fielder Austin Bell, before getting center fielder River Town to fly out to center to end it.
“Yeah, it was definitely very hectic,” said Wyatt, who was at the bottom of the dog pile. “Earlier in the week, I had to get stitches in my head, so I was kind of more focused on keeping my head protected. But just to be able to be that guy on the bottom of the dog pile and get that last out was one of the best moments of my life.”
“Getting to Omaha our first year is a dream come true,” Teel said. “I mean, that’s what I wanted to do since I was little. Virginia was always my dream school. And they’ve obviously done it in the past. I wanted to be a part of that. And our team has just been doing a great job every single day, just grinding it out. And we finally got the opportunity, and we capitalized.”
“The opportunity we have now to go to Omaha is, just incredibly special,” O’Connor said. “This is our fifth trip, and I’ve got to tell you, they’re all joyous, they’re all wonderful, they’re all unique in their own way. But this one, I tell you, the route that this team has taken, six times to have their backs against the wall and elimination, and for them to come through, speaks to the character and the resiliency and the type of young men that we have in this program.
“I’d rather not do it that way, but that speaks to the other team, you know, and the job they’ve done,” O’Connor said. “We’re not going to win them all, you know, they give scholarships, too, and, you know, we’re going to play great baseball programs from here on out.
“Things change now. The game stays the same. How you manage it changes a little bit, because you don’t play days in a row until you get to the championship series. So what you do with your pitching, how you handle your team, is really, really crucial to navigate Omaha and navigate this championship. We’ll put our plan together, and that’ll include bringing our best against Tennessee on Saturday, and hopefully, you know, we can come out on top.”
Story by Chris Graham