For much of April and May, the Virginia baseball team talked about playing with its proverbial back against the wall. The Cavaliers started ACC play 4-12 so every weekend series and most midweek games resembled playoff games of sorts for them. Lose multiple series and any hopes of making the NCAA Tournament would be lost as well.
Of course, those were only unofficial elimination games. Other teams near the bubble could rise and fall changing your fate. Plus, there was always the possibility of the Hoos playing their way in via the ACC Tournament and the automatic qualifier. Once they dug out of the massive preseason hole and made the NCAA Tournament field, however, these were no longer pseudo playoff games. Now, if you get into an elimination game, it’s truly win or go home.
That’s a different kind of pressure.
The Wahoos faced that exact scenario six times over two weeks in Columbia, S.C. Six times, they won. Jacksonville, host South Carolina, Old Dominion twice, and Dallas Baptist twice all had a chance to end the developing fairy tale story. Each time, the Cavaliers prevailed and after Monday’s 5-2 win in the Columbia Super Regional’s final game with DBU, they’re headed to Omaha for the College World Series. It’s the fifth time under coach Brian O’Connor that they’ll play in the storied event.
This is the first time since 2015’s National Championship run that UVA earned the trip to Omaha and considering that team’s slow start, the comparisons keep pouring in with another magical surge propelling this team to college baseball’s biggest stage. O’Connor said he was proud of what the 2021 team has done to get to this point.
“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,” O’Connor said, “but this one – I tell you, the route that this team has taken, I think six times they’ve had their backs against the wall of elimination and for them to come through speaks to the character and the resiliency and the type of young men we have in this program.”
Set aside the fact that they had to rally from the doldrums in April to even make the field. Even without that part of the story, what these Hoos have done is rare. Per ESPN (Stats & Info), UVA is just the third team since the NCAA Tournament expanded in 1999 to reach the College World Series after losing both the regional opener and Game 1 of the Super Regional. Rice did it first in 1999 and Florida State did the same in 2008. Both were No. 1 seeds in the regional round. Neither advanced in Omaha with Rice going 1-2 and FSU 0-2. The last team to lose its regional opener and win the CWS was Stanford in 1988.
So yes, making it this far after game 1 losses in the postseason is rare. Virginia did it dramatic fashion too. Of the six elimination games, UVA trailed in three of them. In four of the elimination games, the Hoos didn’t score the go-ahead runs until the sixth inning or later, including the extra innings clincher with ODU in the regional round.
In both Super Regional victories against Dallas Baptist, the Cavaliers scored the needed runs from home runs that flipped the scoreboard with one thrilling swing. In Game 2 on Sunday, Zach Gelof hit a solo homer in the eighth and Alex Tappen followed with a three-run shot later in the same inning. In the decisive game on Monday, it was Kyle Teel’s turn. Trailing 2-1 entering the bottom of the seventh, the Hoos loaded the bases and Teel connected on the Grand Slam for four runs that carried the team to Omaha.
Those two lead-changing homer runs followed a walk-off winner from Devin Ortiz in the 10th inning of Game 7 in the regional with ODU.
Adding up all the offense from the six elimination games so far this postseason, the Wahoos have posted 9 home runs. That accounts for 18.8% of the season total. Overall, they have hit .289 (59 of 204) with 34 RBIs, 8 doubles, 1 triple, and 9 steals. Those numbers aren’t gaudy. Still, many of those hits were clutch late-inning hits with the season on the line. That certainly was true of Teel’s decisive Grand Slam, of which he noted the quote “No pressure, no diamonds” as his way to handle big situations.
Teel’s line for the six elimination games: .444 (12-27), 7 RBIs, and 6 runs scored. Others with notable stat lines include Nic Kent (5 RBIs, 4 runs scored), Tappen (5 RBIs, 3 runs scored), and Devin Ortiz (6 RBIs, 4 runs scored).
On the other side of the coin, Virginia’s pitching really came through in the elimination games. The most recent two games in the Super Regional included a trio of shut-down performances. In Sunday’s game, Griff McGarry got the start and posted 10 strikeouts as part of a gutty performance where he allowed 2 hits and 3 walks. In Monday’s game, Matt Wyatt came in for 5.2 innings of relief and tallied 8 strikeouts as part of what O’Connor called an “amazing” door-closing performance where he allowed 2 hits and 2 walks. Neither player gave up a run.
Also against DBU in the two elimination games, Brandon Neeck and Kyle Whitten tossed one scoreless inning of relief each on Sunday, though Whitten’s was more adventurous. Nate Savino started Monday and tossed 3.1 innings where he allowed 5 hits and 2 runs (both on a homer). Away from the mound, Kent and Chris Newell helped the cause with strong defensive plays. That included a leaping catch by Newell at the center field wall to take away a home run.
Adding up the six elimination games, UVA allowed 18 runs (16 earned) in 55 innings for a 2.62 ERA with 79 strikeouts (12% of the season total). The Cavalier sallowed 39 hits, but only 2 home runs. The teams the they faced in Columbia over the last two weeks are among the top teams in the nation for homers with Old Dominion, South Carolina, and Dallas Baptist all in the top 20 nationally. ODU and DBU, the two teams that had two opportunities teach to send the Hoos home, rank No. 2 and No. 3 this season in home runs with 205 combined. Those two teams had just one between them against UVA’s pitchers. Tennessee, Virginia’s next opponent, ranks fourth nationally by the way with 98 homers.
“We can go all over the field and up and down the pitching staff and there’s just so many incredible stories where guys had to step up and emerge,” O’Connor said. “Look what our outfield’s done. The catch by Newell. The runs that Tappen and home runs that he’s driven in. What Kyle Teel has done. Just right around what Jake Gelof’s done. Max Cotier. The plays Kent has made, the home run he hit to put us on the scoreboard. [Zack] Gelof has just been locked in. Logan Michaels behind the plate, he’s a rock. I mean the guy’s got a broken finger and he’s been playing for three weeks. He’s tough. It takes everybody. I takes every one of them. … It’s amazing. 4-12. 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. We’re going to be ready to roll in Omaha, I can promise you, but what this team has accomplished to have the opportunity to go there is just remarkable and I’m incredibly proud for them.”
In other words, these players had to come up with clutch hits, clutch pitches, and clutch plays to get to Omaha. That came after they rallied throughout April and May just to get the chance. Time after time, they delivered.
It all brings to mind a quote oft attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.” Jefferson didn’t actually say it. Maybe one of these Virginia baseball players did.