Momentum may not carry over from game to game, but confidence surely does. The Virginia baseball team is brimming with it at this point.
The Cavaliers, who were staring up from cellar of the ACC standings in early April, continued their late season surge Sunday with a 6-0 win against Tennessee to open bracket play at the College World Series in Omaha. With that victory, the Hoos are now 7-2 in the NCAA Tournament and 25-11 since April 2. They’ll play from the winner’s side in double elimination pool play on Tuesday night against Mississippi State at 7 p.m.
The ‘backs against the wall, nothing to lose’ theme that began more than two months ago has carried the Cavaliers for weeks and the successful response appears to have buoyed the team’s confidence as a result.
“Just proud that we started off 1-0,” said O’Connor, who picked up his 750th win Sunday. “I can’t say so many great things about how we played in every facet of the game. We were prepared, they handled the moment very, very well and I knew they would because of the situation that they’ve been in the last few weeks.”
Several times in his postgame remarks, O’Connor used the words poise and calmness. It applied across the board in what was a collective effort to win.
Offensively, the storybook day belonged to Logan Michaels. The senior catcher stepped in for his first at-bat of the College World Series in the third inning and scorched a high breaking ball over the right field fence. For Michaels, it was his first home run of the season and just the second of his Cavalier career.
It couldn’t have come in a more meaningful moment. Michaels’ father, who has battled pancreatic cancer during his son’s career, watched the home run sail over the fence on Father’s Day. Michaels later added another RBI and he scored 3 runs too as part of a 3-4 day overall.
“When I hit that, I instantly when it went over the fence, I started thinking about my dad and how it’s one of the most special moments we could share together,” Michaels said. “I was sitting in the dugout after it happened and I got pretty emotional. For him to be here, for what he went through in the past, just for him to be here and be able to see that, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. It was just a really special moment.”
That swing gave the Hoos the 1-0 lead and they didn’t need any more runs to prevail. Michaels’ teammates didn’t take any chances, though.
In the seventh inning, UVA broke through for 6 hits with 4 RBI deliveries that extended the lead. In that inning, Alex Tappen opened with a single and then scored courtesy of an RBI single from Michaels. Zack Gelof, Max Cotier, and Chris Newell added RBI hits of their own in the inning to put up a crooked number. In fact, the Hoos have scored 4 runs in the seventh inning for three straight games. Another run in the ninth provided the final tally.
Gelof went 3-4 with 1 RBI and 1 run scored, while Newell (2-4) and Cotier (2-5) added multi-hit outings and solo RBIs as well.
“We had been taking some pretty good swings, we had squared some balls up throughout the game,” O’Connor said. “I felt like it was a matter of time before we were going to be able to capitalize on some of those opportunities. We had some guys step up and get big clutch hits. I tell the team all the time that’s what this is about. You’ve got to enjoy the moment and you have to have calmness and poise but then it comes down to individual players emerging and getting that big hit, that big pitch, or that big play and that’s what they did.”
Those 6 runs were more than enough thanks to the one-two punch of Andrew Abbott and Matt Wyatt on the mound and the one-two punch of Nic Kent and Cotier in the middle infield. That quartet combined to set the tone defensively as the Hoos allowed just 6 hits and shut out the Volunteers. Tennessee only had two other scoreless games all season, March 9 at Charlotte and April 16 vs. Vanderbilt.
Abbott figuratively danced around raindrops many times during his day to keep the goose egg intact. It started in the first when he walked the first batter and allowed a single to the next, which left runners on the corners with no outs. Abbott responded with 2 strikeouts sandwiched around a pop out. That foreshadowed some other critical moments later in the game.
The fifth inning started the same way with a walk and a single putting two runners on with no outs. Abbott escaped that time after a sacrifice bunt and two sterling defensive plays up the middle. In the sixth inning, trouble brewed again as the Vols opened the frame with back-to-back singles for two on with no outs once again. Abbott got out of that jam with a fielder’s choice and 2 strikeouts to finish up his day. Abbott finished with 10 strikeouts and 5 hits allowed in 6 innings, the first Cavalier to post double-digit Ks in a CWS game. Danny Hultzen posted 8 strikeouts against South Carolina in Omaha in 2011.
“For him to show the poise, the calmness that he did in that first inning – sometimes here in Omaha, that first inning can be a difficult inning for starting pitchers,” O’Connor said of Abbott. “He handled it like a champion, handled it like a winner. He continued to make pitches and was fortunate to get out of it.”
Of course, Abbott’s jam defiance doesn’t come through without the play of Kent and Cotier in the center of the diamond. In the fifth inning situation, Cotier leapt to snare a well hit line drive for the second out. Kent followed with a short stop range-finder play on the other side of the bag and fired to first for the final out to close the door. In the seventh, Kent grabbed a line drive out around his shoe laces too.
The duo wasn’t done. They came up with two more plays in the eighth inning. After Wyatt walked a batter, Cotier made the fielder’s choice out with a throw to second base. Moments later, Kent again got to a ball in the middle of the field, flipped it over to second for an out, and Cotier turned it around quickly for the double play to end the inning.
That was just the latest sign of UVA’s quality of play late in the season.
“I feel like this club, hands down, there is no question about it, we are absolutely playing the best baseball of our year,” O’Connor said. “Offensively, we’re a totally different team from where we were in the first half. The pitching is just really elite and doing some great things. This is when you want to be playing your best. Everybody does.”