OMAHA, Neb. -- Virginia coach Brian O’Connor made it very clear: Danny Pinero took off for third on his own.
Pinero didn’t seem fazed by the moment. It was a 3-3 game on Saturday in the top of the eighth when the sophomore stole second with No. 3 hitter Matt Thaiss at the dish.But that wasn’t enough. “Screw it, let’s go,” Pinero thought. He darted for third on Zach Jackson’s very next pitch, risking a potential rally-ending blunder by taking a runner out of scoring position with the heart of the order up.
“I knew [Jackson] had a high leg kick, so I wanted to take advantage of that,” Pinero said following the 5-3 win at TD Ameritrade Park in the College World Series opener. “I was creeping a little bit towards third base and got a good jump.”
Good jumps aren’t much of a consolation prize if it’s countered with a quick and accurate throw from behind the plate. Fortunately for Pinero and Virginia’s CWS championship hopes, Arkansas catcher Tucker Pennell’s contest went just enough up the third base line for Pinero to slide in head first before the sweeping tag arrived. A throw to the bag or inside the base line would’ve been a bang-bang play and could’ve easily led to a long walk across the diamond back to the Virginia dugout and O'Connor had Pinero not been so lucky. Instead, he was on third as Kenny Towns lined a two-out double to right field to put Virginia on top 4-3.
“Our plan was to be aggressive from the start if the situation presented itself,” O’Connor said. “We maybe didn’t get here today, being in Omaha, playing it close to the vest. So here we are, and a few chances taken today and they worked in our favor. Most of the time.”
Arkansas coach Dave van Horn agreed that Jackson was too slow to the plate and said his pitcher should’ve made a move over to second to try to slow Pinero down.
“I think the runner kind of gave it away, and I think we should’ve recognized that on the mound,” van Horn said. “Sometimes you just have to look around a little bit and get an idea of what’s going on. He kept creeping.”
Virginia (40-22) went 5-for-8 on stolen base attempts on the day, a bit of a shock coming from a team that only attempted 62 steals all year. O’Connor admitted that’s not much for a team that ends up playing in Omaha in June, but he joked that the Cavaliers “lulled everyone to sleep all year” before running wild on Saturday.
Pinero himself was only 6-for-8 this year in the running game. He finished the game with three steals, a feat that hasn’t been achieved in a CWS game since 2004.
“It’s a ton of fun,” he said. “It doesn’t really happen that much in Virginia baseball, but it came at a good time. Game 1 of the College World Series -- why not?”
For a guy who doesn’t steal much, Pinero sure knows when to take a chance. In a game against Georgia Tech on May 10, he swiped third during an intentional walk.
Pinero had O’Connor pacing in the dugout earlier in the game when he was on second and jumping around. “Please, Danny. Not now,” O’Connor thought.
Fortunately for O’Connor, Pinero and Virginia, Pinero didn’t put too much thought into his third and final steal. It was pure instinct with very little time for thought of what could go wrong.
“Danny’s a heady player,” O’Connor said. “He’s got really good instincts. It was a good play. Certainly if there’s one out, if he can get there and Thaiss can hit a fly ball, it’s the difference between a run.”
Virginia’s aggressive mindset could be the difference in the World Series.
It certainly was on Saturday.