Brian O’Connor knew it was just a matter of time before Virginia’s offense unleashed. So did Elon coach Mike Kennedy.
After winning its first two games of the NCAA Regional by scoring a total of four runs, Virginia was overdue when it faced Kennedy’s Elon squad in Sunday night’s final. The Cavaliers exploded for 14 hits in an 11-3 win that allowed them to advance to their fourth NCAA Super Regional is the last five years.
“We’ve stayed away from the big inning for the past few weeks, but tonight it reared its ugly head and we didn’t recover from it,” Kennedy said. “We knew [Virginia] was just too good of a club. They’re not going to score only two runs every night.”
As far as O’Connor was concerned, the timing couldn’t have been any better. Elon had jumped to a 3-0 lead in the top of the third and the sellout crowd at Davenport had suddenly become a little nervous.
Not O’Connor & Co., though.
One of the things the UVa skipper had been most proud of about this very young baseball team (only two daily starters are seniors), is that it never has reached for the panic button this season no matter the situation.
Instead, the Cavaliers responded with the big inning that Kennedy will see in his sleep the next few nights. Virginia strung together a five-hit, six-run third inning to blow the thing open and never looked back.
With one runner on and one out, Jared King, who had been in a dreadful slump, drilled a run-scoring double to left and then the floodgates opened on the unwary Phoenix. After two straight walks, Derek Fisher followed with a two-run single. Nick Howard drove in two more with a single to right and Kenny Towns added a run-scoring double to left.
When the run flurry was over, Elon must have felt overwhelmed.
Fisher had also been in a major postseason slump (0-for-23 in his NCAA career), so with he and King both blasting their way out of their funk within minutes of one another must have been a sign that it was going to be a long night for Elon.
After the game, Fisher was a bit coy about relating a story about what he and some of his teammates did to end his woes at the plate.
It was somewhat reminiscent of the baseball flick “Major League,” where slumping Pedro Cerrano goes to great lengths to break out of his troubles.
Fisher, who may or may not be superstitious, took his bat to the training room before the game for a little extra stimulation. Apparently he hooked up his bat to an “electric stimulation” device that normally trainers attach to injured athletes, with the stimulation loosening up the injury muscle.
Fisher’s theory was a little different, hoping to “jolt” some life back into his bat.
Must have worked. He went 2-for-5, had 3 RBI and scored a run.
Must have been contagious because Virginia’s bats came alive much to the chagrin of Elon, which had defeated UNC-Wilmington with a late rally earlier in the day, in order to face the Cavaliers for the region title.
“We were having fun with it, trying to keep things loose in the clubhouse,” Fisher said later.
O’Connor was pleased that other than the extra “stim,” that Fisher hadn’t gone to any drastic measures to end his hitting slump in the postseason. Instead, he had stuck with the normal routine, again never showing any signs of panic.
“We had a tremendous offensive day,” O’Connor said about the hit parade. “I knew it was going to happen at some point. We’re too good to be held down. Fisher is such a gifted hitter, that it was a matter of time before he had a monster day or has back-to-back monster days.”
Part of the anemic batting in the first two games were credited to strong pitching performances by Army senior Chris Rowley and Elon senior Spencer Medick.
What may have surprised UVa’s foes was the fact that the bottom of its order hit so well.
Howard, Kenny Towns and Nate Irving, the 7, 8, and 9 hitters, were a collective 6-of-12 (.500) with six RBI and three runs scored against Elon, including Howard’s career-high four hits. For the three-game regional, the trio hit close to .400, which had a bigger impact than it appeared.
“It makes a huge difference,” O’Connor said. “That’s what takes you from a good offensive club to a great offensive club.”
He resisted moving any of those hitters up in the batting order and for a good reason.
“You can wear a pitcher down that way and we’ve done that a lot this year, wearing down starting pitchers like that,” O’Connor said.
Taking the region title, the Cavaliers showed they can win with pitching and defense or with offense in coasting to their 50th win of the season in 60 games. In doing so, they become one of three programs that have advanced to the NCAA Super Regional in four of the past five seasons, joining Florida State and Florida (South Carolina and Cal State Fullerton can also join the group with regional wins).
Of those four squads, this is by far the youngest one for O’Connor.
“We talk about the youth on this team but they all played in the regional last year and I believe that had something to do with us winning this year,” O’Connor said.
Even if it took a little extra stimulation.