OMAHA, Neb. — When Virginia and California stepped on the field Sunday at TD Ameritrade Park, there were no doubts that either team would walk away with a loss very easily.
Both teams are battle-tested in the NCAA postseason, mere strikes away from elimination in the previous rounds. It was just a matter of which squad could outlast the other in both teams’ College World Series opener. This afternoon, it was Virginia’s persistence that paid off with a well-earned 4-1 victory.
For six innings, it looked like the contest would be a stalemate. The game was scoreless through six innings – the first CWS contest to go scoreless through six innings since Florida State defeated Arizona State 3-0 on May 31, 1987.
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It was not like either team did not have the opportunity to score. Virginia had runners in scoring position in each of the first five innings, but ended the game 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position. Cal went 1-for-19 with runners on base.
“Both teams were given some base runners and opportunities, and it was about who was going to come up with the big hit,” Cal head coach Dave Esquer said.
“I was starting to wonder there for a while,” Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor said. “We had a lot of missed opportunities where we didn’t capitalize. I think that speaks to the quality of Cal’s arms, and their ability to pitch out of some jams. I knew if we hung in there and continued to battle with our pitching then maybe we would have a chance to win it late, and fortunately we did.”
Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen tossed 6.1 scoreless innings, striking out six batters while giving up just three hits and three walks. Tyler Wilson (9-0), the Cavaliers’ usual No. 2 starter, and closer Braden Kline finished out the effort, combining to allow just one run in the 2.2 innings of relief.
The outstanding pitching effort was no surprise. The Cavaliers lead the nation in ERA, and have compiled a 1.31 ERA in seven NCAA postseason games.
And, while Virginia’s pitching kept them in the contest, their hitters never got dejected with their fruitless efforts to score. They knew it was just a matter of time.
“We had confidence the whole time,” Virginia catcher John Hicks said. “Our pitchers did an unbelievable job of keeping us in the game. We just couldn’t get it together. We had plenty of opportunities early in the ball game. We just had to get a ball in the air or in the middle of the field and we would score a run, but we just couldn’t get a clutch hit. We knew we would come through eventually and get on the board. Our pitchers did a great job of getting us there.”
“The way the game went today … it has happened that way quite a bit this year,” O’Connor said. “Our hitters after a time through have kind of figured out what they’re trying to do to us and make the adjustment from an offensive standpoint.”
In the seventh inning, the Cavalier hitters finally came through. Second basemen Keith Werman led off the seventh inning with a base hit, and shortstop Chris Taylor followed with a walk. With two runners on and no outs, Cal pulled reliever Logan Scott for Matt Flemer, and the Cavaliers took advantage of the situation. Hicks knocked a clutch base hit up the middle to score Werman, and third baseman Steven Proscia drove in another run on a sacrifice fly giving UVa a 2-0 lead.
“That’s kind of the way the game [of college baseball] has been going all year long,” Esquer said. “The three-run homer and out-muscling someone doesn’t happen. It’s about putting guys in position and then winning the big spot. That’s the way it has been all year long and Virginia did a great job of that.”
With only four hits through six innings, the Cavaliers found their groove in the seventh and eighth innings, scoring four runs on five hits, highlighted by an RBI-triple by first baseman Jared King. He had struck out twice and grounded into a double play in his first three at bats.
“We’ve been a team that all year has grinded it out offensively, and I think the pitcher can get very frustrated sometimes with our offensive approach,” O’Connor said. “Nobody gives in and they’re going to continue to foul balls off and give a quality at bat.”
While No. 1 national seed Virginia notched its’ school-record 55th victory and advanced to the winners’ bracket, do not count out Cal just yet.
It was the Cavaliers that came out on top today, but watch out for the Golden Bears on Tuesday. They are ready for another battle.
“We got ‘em right where we want ‘em,” Esquer said. “This is when we’re at our best, when our backs are against the wall … at least that’s what I’m trying to convince our guys. We’ve done it all year.”