DURHAM, N.C. — In a game that didn’t matter to the outside world, only to Virginia and Florida State, the smallest guy on the field made the biggest difference.
Purely by physical stature, UVa third baseman Kenny Towns is not an imposing figure. His No. 9 jersey isn’t bulging with Popeye the Sailor Man muscles. He won’t be mistaken for a medal-winning sprinter.
Rather, the 5-foot-11 sophomore is as perilous as an agitated puff adder suddenly awakened from its sleep. In Saturday’s game against Florida State, when both teams had been eliminated from the ACC Championship and were playing for pride, Towns was the difference-maker.
“We still had something to prove,” Towns said after belting a bottom of the 12th, three-run, winning walk-off home run to give his Cavaliers a 7-4 victory over the Seminoles.
The three-run shot, which required the blink of an eye to clear the towering left-field wall, was the second heroic play of the day for the Lake Braddock High School product. Towns had raced from first to score in the eighth inning on Mike Papi’s single to right to tie the game at 4-all. UVa third base coach Kevin McMullan showed plenty of brass by waving Towns toward home, beating a play at the plate.
When it was all over, Towns received a swarming celebration by his teammates and was promptly doused by a barrel of Gatorade during a TV interview.
The performance just added to an already miserable trip for the Seminoles and their legendary coach Mike Martin.
“It was a fun week,” Martin deadpanned. “It kind of reminded me of the week I took to Afghanistan for vacation.”
One could hardly blame Martin for his sarcasm. Florida State was ranked seventh nationally (two slots behind UVa) in the national polls coming into the ACC showdown at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and lost all three games, two by walk-off bombs and another one-run heartbreaker.
Don’t feel too badly for Martin though. He’s not sulking or complaining. Despite the postseason slide, he knows the real deal starts Friday, when NCAA play begins.
Even his counterpart, Virginia coach Brian O’Connor understands the reality of it all.
“As great as the walk-off home run was, as great as this victory was, people are going to remember this team on what we do moving forward,” O’Connor said. “That doesn’t add pressure. It’s just the way sports is.”
The Cavaliers, now 47-10, are a shoo-in to earn a national top eight seed (those will be announced today, complete field Monday). Florida State (44-15) likely will be included among the top eight seeds as well.
Towns, who made headlines in Thursday’s win over Georgia Tech by moving from third to first base for ailing starter Jared King, and slapping another homer to left, is certainly enjoying the sudden hero status.
When he tied the game in the eighth, Coach Mac rolled the dice by sending Towns to home, where he was called safe by his chinny-chin-chin and allowed the Cavaliers to prolong the game long enough to claim their 20th come-from-behind victory of the season.
“When I was rounding second, I was being waved pretty hard the whole time, so when I got to third I kept going,” Towns said of scoring all the way from first. “I didn’t know if something maybe happened in right field, so I wasn’t too shocked [to be waved home].”
O’Connor, on the other hand, admitted he might have been just a little bit shocked to look up and see Towns barreling down the third base line.
“I was yelling stop,” O’Connor chuckled. “By then it was too late. Kenny was coming home. It was obviously a huge, pivotal play in the game.”
Catcher’s interference had been called on Papi’s single to first, so Virginia would have had two options regardless of the outcome. Had Papi flied out, he would have been given first due to the interference and Towns would have advanced to second. Nothing beyond that was a guarantee, so McMullen’s decision was crucial.
“Coach Mac saw a little delay out there that maybe they had slowed down because it was catcher’s interference, so he wheeled him, and fortunately it wasn’t a good throw and he was able to score,” O’Connor said.
The three-run shot off FSU reliever and future Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston, was the seventh roundtripper of the season (second-most on the team) for Towns, who doesn’t exactly resemble the Sultan of Swat.
UVa’s hero said Winston’s pitch was right down the middle of the plate and because the FSU hurler was throwing so hard, Towns figured all he had to do was get his bat on the ball and it might sail out.
“[Winston] was doing half the work because he was throwing so hard,” Towns said. “I knew pretty much (that it was gone), but I wasn’t 100 percent sure.”
Everyone else in the park was sure from the crack of the bat until patrons outside a restaurant overlooking left field started to dodge Towns’ incoming rocket, ending the four-hour-plus “meaningless” contest.
O’Connor had huddled with his team Thursday night after learning the Cavaliers had been eliminated from today’s championship by Virginia Tech going 3-0 in the four-team pool (UVa finished 2-1), and instructed his players to treat the Florida State game like the championship.
This time, they got the message.