Behind dominant pitching and bullpen-feasting hitting, the Virginia baseball team has made a habit of forcing its opponents into adverse situations all season.
The formula had the Cavaliers at 24-2, ranked fifth in the country and on a nine-game winning streak entering Sunday’s series finale with Miami.
That’s when the script flipped.
It was the Wahoos who had to deal with loads of adversity in a 4-3 loss to the Hurricanes before an Easter crowd of 2,760 at Davenport Field.
“It was a game where there was a lot to overcome,” said UVa coach Brian O’Connor. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t overcome the way the game started throughout the ballgame.”
In fact, O’Connor wasn’t even present for the final 8 1/2 innings.
Virginia starter Nick Howard opened the game by allowing consecutive singles before running Miami right fielder Chantz Mack into a full count. Mack made a check swing on Howard’s 3-2 pitch that was ruled a ball.
From the dugout, O’Connor voiced his displeasure with the call and was ejected by home plate umpire Tom Baldinelli. The quick hook forced O’Connor onto the playing surface and into the face of Baldinelli before he stormed back inside the clubhouse, where he would watch the rest of the game via Internet live-stream.
“Unfortunately, league rules are such that I can’t comment on it,” O’Connor said, “other than, overall, there was a lot to overcome in this game and we just didn’t overcome it.”
Following Mack’s walk, Brad Fieger singled in a run to cue the floodgates on a four-hit, four-run frame that left the home team in a big hole and without its skipper.
“To be honest, it did [rattle me],” Howard said. “It’s my job to overcome that. Some calls weren’t going either team’s way and we both had to deal with that today.
“I should be better and I should be there for my team more.”
Howard took the loss to drop to 3-2, but the final result had several chances to be in UVa’s favor.
After a tumultuous first inning, the Cavalier pitching staff allowed just one more hit — a trivial Chris Barr single off Howard to begin the fifth.
The bullpen combination of Austin Young, Nathan Kirby, Josh Sborz and Kyle Crockett was in its usual lights-out form. That unit lowered its ERA to a miniscule 1.84.
“Our bullpen has just been spectacular,” O’Connor said. “They’re going to need to continue to be that way. This weekend, for the first time, we didn’t get quality starts two out of the three games, but that bullpen came in and shut them down and certainly gave us a chance to win.”
Miami’s early lead was threatened by the Virginia lineup in basically every inning. Reed Gragnani hit a two-run double in the second and Nate Irving scored on an error in the sixth.
But the ‘Hoos left the bases loaded in the third and fourth. They left 13 runners on for the game.
“We’re always a clutch hit away,” Gragnani said. “It was tough for us to get the ball on the ground today. We had a lot of fly outs, I think.
“But that’s just baseball. You’re going to leave runners on. You’re not always going to handle the ball, but we just got to bounce back and do the best we can next time.”
In fitting fashion, Howard, who was burned by a debatable strike zone call in the first inning, ended the game by watching strike three at the plate.
“It changed all day,” Howard said of the zone. “But it’s our job to adjust to that. A borderline pitch, either way you have to make that adjustment.”
Nonetheless, the weekend marked another Atlantic Coast Conference series win for the Cavaliers (25-3, 9-3). They’ll travel to a sold-out Liberty Baseball Stadium to take on the Flames (17-11) at 6 p.m., Tuesday.
Miami improved to 20-11 and 5-7 in the ACC.
“It’s frustrating looking back at it, but we’re already preparing for Liberty on Tuesday,” Gragnani said. “Leaving runners on base and things like that, that’s just baseball.
“Right now, we’re turning our focus already to the game Tuesday.”