Rest in peace, Virginia, although that is unlikely after the Cavaliers came up short in the NCAA Super Regional to Omaha-bound Mississippi State.
Instead, UVa will be haunted by what could have been after dropping two straight to the SEC-toughened Bulldogs in the best-of-three series at rain-soaked Davenport Field. The Cavaliers were eliminated 6-5 on Monday evening in the weather-prolonged second game that began Sunday night.
This wasn’t Virginia baseball, not what the Wahoo faithful were accustomed to watching. Taking nothing away from a terrific Mississippi State team, which deserved to advance to the College World Series, but the Cavaliers were clearly off their game and paid dearly as a result.
The visiting Bulldogs pounded UVa pitchers for 30 hits over 17 innings and the Wahoos committed seven errors, often extending innings for their guests and igniting MSU big innings in the process. Virginia’s pitching, with the exception of reliable reliever Kyle Crockett, was shaky throughout the series.
It was the first time all season long that Virginia lost back-to-back games at Davenport.
While Cavalier fans look toward next year for some solace, realizing all but three starters return, UVa coach Brian O’Connor would have none of that.
“I am not looking to next year at all,” O’Connor said after watching his 50-12 season come to an end. “We obviously have a lot of players coming back, but this year’s team had a chance to do it all, had the ability to win it all. We just didn’t do it.”
The Virginia skipper believes in those trusty old pack yaks – pitching and defense – to survive and advance this time of year, but his team came up woefully short in both of those categories.
“It’s about getting hot and we just aren’t that hot team,” O’Connor said.
He knew that after getting bombed 11-6 in Saturday’s opener, surrendering 20 hits to the Bulldogs, his team had a reputation for bouncing back, never quitting and that showed in the two-day, weather-plagued second game.
Down 5-1 after five innings Sunday, the Cavaliers chipped away; perhaps unaware of the fact that MSU owned a 32-1 record when leading after five innings this season. Still, down 6-3 in the top of the ninth, Virginia never gave up the fight.
For a moment there, the unlikely chain of events that unfolded on the field conjured up déjà vu from 2011 when Virginia came back from the dead in the bottom of the ninth to stun California-Irvine and advanced to the CWS.
This time, Mississippi State, which had been in total control – cool, calm, collected – the entire weekend, almost came apart at the seams, putting a runner on base, giving up two hits and bungling a routine play that allowed the Cavaliers to come within a run.
Fans from both teams held their collective breath after MSU botched a simple exchange between pitcher John Holder and burley first baseman Wes Rea that would have ended the game. The ball fell to the ground, allowing UVa’s Mike Papi to score and Brandon Downes to reach safely before the final out came on the following at-bat.
“We’ve done that play eight gazillion times and to see that ball hit off his glove on a pretty good throw, it was like, ‘This is impossible… there’s no way this could have happened,’” said Bulldogs coach John Cohen, who admittedly took a deep breath to settle his nerves.
Must have been how O’Connor and his coaching staff felt over the three-day span, watching their team do almost unimaginable things.
Like the seven errors for instance, or the Cavalier defense managing to retire the Bulldogs in order twice over two entire games. Or watching 12 UVa batters striking out (a season high) on Sunday/Monday, 10 of which were mowed down by reliever Chad Girodo, a kid who couldn’t get anybody out until changing to a sidearm delivery days before the season started.
O’Connor didn’t figure on Saturday starter, freshman southpaw Brandon Waddell, registering his second-shortest outing of the season (3.1 innings), or senior lefty Scott Silverstein matching his shortest appearance of the year (also 3.1 innings) on Sunday.
Silverstein was so distraught over his college career ending in such fashion that he couldn’t speak in Monday’s postgame press conference, overcome with emotion. He was later spotted walking alone around the diamond one last time, an hour after the stadium emptied.
“I would never say I am disappointed in a team and I am not disappointed in this ball club at all,” O’Connor said. “It is frustrating though. This can happen and we have been in this scenario before where we haven’t played our best baseball. That is no disrespect to Mississippi State. Part of the reason we didn’t play well is because of Mississippi State.”
O’Connor and some of his players pointed out how the Bulldogs put pressure on opponents and UVa didn’t do a good job of handling that pressure as they had most of the season.
As difficult as the end was for the Cavaliers, O’Connor said there’s a lot to take away from the season, including the bounce back his very young team exhibited until the bitter end and the 20-some come-from-behind wins, and reaching a Super Regional for the fourth time in the last five years.
“I’ll take away that there are enormous expectations in this program and we love that,” the UVa skipper said. “I will take away that I know what our players are about, who they are as people and as players, the fight of those guys who come back and battle.
“I will think of Silverstein and his career, what that kid has had to endure over these past five years and it is impressive.”
The coach hopes that his young team, one whose roster is dotted by sophomores and freshmen, learns from this experience, remembers what Saturday’s shell-shock felt like, what Sunday’s domination felt like, what Monday’s near comeback was like, and uses that in its future.
If nothing else, O’Connor was emphatic about one thing.
“This program is here,” O’Connor said, “and this program is here to stay.”