If you evaluated the Virginia baseball team’s postseason chances after a three-game sweep by Notre Dame in Charlottesville in March, things didn’t look super.
If you evaluated those chances after the Cavaliers’ fifth straight ACC series loss to open the season heading into April, things didn’t look super.
If you evaluated those chances after the another one-run Friday night loss to open April at 11-14 and 4-12 in the ACC, things didn’t look super.
If you evaluated those chances after a series loss to Louisville sidetracked progress, things didn’t look super.
If you evaluated Virginia baseball’s chances after a second mid-week loss to VCU entering the exam break, things didn’t look super.
If you evaluated those chances after the loss to open the NCAA Tournament Regional in Columbia on Friday, things didn’t look super.
If you evaluated those chances after the Cavaliers played through a downpour and rallied from a run down in the eight inning on Tuesday, however, things most certainly looked super. As in, the written off in April but headed to a seventh Super Regional out of the loser’s bracket kind of super. Yes, it turned out to be that kind of weekend for the Hoos. They defeated ODU 4-3 in the 10th inning of the regional’s decisive game.
”They’re all different. They’re all special,” UVA coach Brian O’Connor said. ”This one is just incredibly special. … This is incredibly special. They’re all great. They’re all different in different ways, but I tell you what the way this group of guys has done it – memories of a lifetime for sure.”
After losing a close one-run game to South Carolina on Friday, Virginia worked through the loser’s bracket for the first time in program history to make it to a Super Regional against Dallas Baptist that will also be played in Columbia. This marked just the sixth time a regional Game 7 went to extra innings since this format was put in place in 1999.
Considering how this season started and the path the Cavaliers traveled to get there, Tuesday’s delayed and temporarily drenched chapter certainly joined UVA lore. They failed to put a runner on base through the first 16 batters. They fell behind twice, once on a slow roller that beat a shift by the infield in the sixth and once after walks and an error combined to give up two runs on two hits in the eighth, though the damage was limited there thanks to an outfield throw to the plate from Kyle Teel. The Hoos then tied the game again in the eighth with help from a walk and two wild pitches, survived a base runner in the ninth, and then won on a walk-off home run in the 10th inning.
Devin Ortiz provided the heroics in the 10th with a rocket blast over the left field fence that set off a Cavalier celebration. It was the first walk-off home run in Virginia NCAA postseason history. It was also the first walk-off home run for UVA since Kenny Towns hit one against Florida State in the 2013 ACC Tournament.
“Usually on my past home runs prior, I usually run hard out of the box because I never really know,” Ortiz said. “But this one, it felt really good and immediately I knew that it was going to go out. When I hit it, I couldn’t control my emotions and I knew it was gone and I was just so happy and excited to see my teammates just cheering. Everyone was just very happy.”
Battling back and coming through in the end continued the 2021 theme for the Wahoos. In a season filled with 19 one-run games for the Hoos, they won by that margin for the 13th time. It was also their third victory in extra innings this season. And, as alluded to above, they rallied from a 4-12 start in ACC play to join NC State and Notre Dame in the 16-team Super Regional round.
“I think it shows that you don’t stop until it’s over,” Ortiz said. “You keep going until the final out is made.”
To get there, Virginia needed to win four straight games following a tough 4-3 loss Friday to South Carolina. In that region opener, the Hoos saw a lead slip away in the sixth inning and force them into the loser’s bracket. That meant that they had to come through the loser’s bracket with four straight wins to keep their season alive.
That started with Jacksonville on Saturday where UVA’s offense provided the firepower needed to keep playing. The Dolphins led after the third and fifth innings, but the Cavaliers scored in seven of eight at-bats to prevail 13-8. Zack Gelof and Teel each had four hits, while Max Cotier and Jake Gelof each had three. The Gelof brothers combined to score six runs.
Once the Wahoos earned their way to Sunday, they needed to win a doubleheader to force a final Game 7. They had not played a doubleheader all year and faced host South Carolina first in a rematch from Friday. That set the stage for some improbable pitching stories over the final three games.
Against the Gamecocks, Matt Wyatt started and went 5.0 innings with eight strikeouts and one walk to keep SC off the scoreboard. Leading 3-2 late, Stephen Schoch closed the door with five strikeouts in 2.1 innings. He also drew national attention to the Cavaliers and Dippin’ Dots with this after the game:
But despite the Hoos’ strong outing on the mound and that iconic interview, it wasn’t the best pitching story of the day. In the second game Sunday, Virginia had to take on top seed Old Dominion. Griff McGarry, who was the Friday night starter in 2020 but fell out of the rotation earlier this season, delivered 3.1 innings and 8 strikeouts before he left with a cut. Brandon Neeck followed with 5.2 innings of relief and 16 strikeouts, which tied Andrew Abbott for third-most in a single game in program history. Neeck had pitched 19 innings in his career before coming up with that gem Sunday.
Still, the Cavaliers needed one more game to advance and they needed to find the right arms to get the job done. After a rainout on Monday, the Hoos stuck with Ortiz as the starter Tuesday morning. He made his first career start on the mound after pitching only two innings all season and recorded six strikeouts over four scoreless innings. Combined with his home run later in the game, Ortiz earned the Most Outstanding Player honor for the regional after going 7-21 with a two home runs and a team-best six RBI in five games. He is tied for the team lead with eight homers.
“Even with the extra day’s rest, could there have been other guys to potentially start? Sure there is,” O’Connor said. “But we didn’t waiver at all that Ortiz was going to start and he was going to get us off to a good start. He deserved that opportunity. I’m just incredibly proud of him.”
After Zach Messinger posted two strikeouts in 1.2 innings, Virginia brought in Abbott but a run scored on an uncontested steal of third base and an unfortunate roller through a vacated gap at short stop due to an infield shift. But Virginia tied the game and turned to Schoch one more time. He surrendered a pair of walks and a single in the eighth to let one run score and then ODU added to it with a single after an error kept the inning alive.
The Hoos bounced back to get it tied again and Schoch shut the door with scoreless innings in the ninth and 10th. He ended up as the winning pitcher with five strikeouts in a season-high 3.1 innings that required 75 pitches.
It all added up to what O’Connor had told his team in preparation last week. To win a regional, numerous players and pitchers have to rise to the occasion. The Hoos certainly did in Columbia.
“What an amazing college baseball game,” O’Connor said. “I’ve said it the last few games that it’s tournaments like these, it’s postseason time where players emerge and step forward to help their team accomplish something great.”