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Behind record-setting pitching, Virginia dominates ODU to set up Monday night championship game

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Brandon Neeck celebrates with teammates during Sunday’s win over ODU. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

On the brink of elimination in a marathon NCAA regional doubleheader, and after watching gritty, record-breaking performances, some completely unexpected, Virginia coach Brian O’Connor put a ribbon on Sunday’s wins over South Carolina and Old Dominion.

“This was one of the greatest days in our baseball program’s history,” O’Connor declared after the Cavaliers advanced to Monday night’s Columbia regional championship game against ODU. “It’s the old saying, ‘You stay around this game long enough, you’ll see something that maybe you haven’t seen before.’”

The day began at noon when third-seed Virginia won an intense, 3-1 battle over No. 2 seed and regional host South Carolina, a team that had edged the Cavaliers in Friday’s opener of the double-elimination tournament. The day ended close to midnight whe UVA, playing its first double-header of the season, knocked off No. 1 seed Old Dominion, 8-3, setting up tonight’s showdown (7 p.m.) with the Monarchs for the right to advance to a Super Regional.

What happened in between was sheer guts and magic for O’Connor, who could speak on Virginia’s history because he’s been at the helm for 18 of the program’s best years.

After eliminating South Carolina (see related story) earlier in the day, the Cavaliers received eye-popping pitching performances from two of their most unheralded hurlers. 

Senior Griff McGarry and junior Brandon Neeck combined to strike out 24 ODU batters and handcuffed one of the nation’s most lethal offensive lineups. The Monarchs boasted the most home runs (105) of any team in the nation and a host of dangerous hitters.

None of that seemed to faze the two Cavalier pitchers, particularly Neeck, who had never gone past 2.1 innings in a game before and who had never struck out more than four batters coming into Sunday night’s game. Neeck set UVA’s single-game postseason record with 16 strikeouts while gaining his first win of the season, lasting 5.2 innings.

Together, McGarry and Neeck’s 24 strikeouts are a new Virginia single-game record and the most strikeouts in a nine-inning NCAA Division I game since 1994, when Auburn struck out 25 Arkansas batters. It was the most strikeouts by an Old Dominion team since 1966.

“It’s amazing that of the 27 outs, 24 of them were by strikeout,” O’Connor said. “McGarry was locked in, and the plan for Neeck was to pitch in this game, but I can tell you that I had no idea that he was going to pitch five-plus innings. What an amazing performance.”

Neeck said afterward that he had hoped to give his team three good innings, but was instantly in a jam when he entered the game, inheriting a one-out, bases-loaded situation. ODU took advantage of McGarry, who had developed a cut on his throwing-hand thumb and was bleeding, unable to control his pitches. That led to three consecutive walks to Monarch batters, two of them being four-pitch walks in the bottom of the fourth.

Up until that point, McGarry had dominated ODU’s lineup with a scorching fastball ranging from 95 to 99 miles per hour on speed guns. The Californian struck out the first six batters he faced and left the game with eight.

Once his thumb began bleeding, McGarry lost control, surrendering back-to-back home runs to Levari and Carter Trice to lead off the bottom of the fourth. Those roundtrippers cut UVA’s lead to 5-2, and by the time Neeck entered the game, it was 5-3 and he was facing a sticky predicament.

But Neeck responded by striking out the next two batters, squelching the ODU threat and ending the inning. The Monarchs had runners reach second and third with one out in the bottom of the seventh, but Neeck rose to the occasion and fanned the next two batters.

“We just didn’t play well, really in any phase of the game,” said ODU coach Chris Finwood, who watched his team’s nine-game winning streak end. “We gave up three runs on defense with errors. We didn’t get nearly enough balls in play, and they certainly outplayed us.

“Usually when you get to this point and you have a bad day, I just tell them to go out there and stick your chin out and say, ‘They kicked our butts, we tip our hat to them, and we’ve got to be better tomorrow, and we plan on doing just that.”

The Monarchs, the No. 11 seed nationally, are 44-15 overall. Virginia, which has won 10 of its last 13 games, is 32-24. The Cavaliers, picked as high as No. 5 in the country in some preseason polls, got off to a slow start, stumbling out of the blocks. UVA was 4-12 in the ACC in mid-April when it appeared the Cavaliers wouldn’t even make the ACC Tournament, let alone the NCAAs.

Tonight, they’ll be playing for all the Columbia Regional marbles.

“To beat South Carolina in their ballpark, facing elimination, and then to beat the No. 1 seed in the first championship game is amazing,” O’Connor said. “This is incredibly hard.

“Of all the regionals we’ve been in and in different scenarios, to keep fighting your way back and get a chance to play for a championship is really rare, and it’s rare in our history. None of [UVA’s previous regionals] looked like this. This is the most challenging path, but this team has played hard the last two months.”

While the Cavaliers pitching kept ODU at bay, UVA’s offense did its part as well.

Virginia bolted to a 2-0 lead in the first inning when freshman Kyle Teel ripped an RBI single up the middle, then scored on Nic Kent’s sacrifice fly. The Cavaliers expanded the lead to 4-0 in the third with Devin Ortiz’ two-run blast (his seventh of the season) to left.

Chris Newell singled and stole second as Virginia chased ODU starter Tommy Gertner after 3.1 innings. Newell scored on Max Cotier’s single past shortstop and into left field.

After ODU cut the lead to 5-3 in the fourth, UVA answered in the fifth when Kent scored on one of the Monarchs’ errors for a 6-3 lead. The Cavaliers added some insurance in the top of the ninth when Kent ripped a two-out single to left and scored on Logan Michaels’ two-RBI single to right, which also scored Alex Tappen, who had reached on an error.

O’Connor said he had absolutely no idea who would start on the mound on Monday night.

That will not be a problem for ODU. Hunter Gregory, the Monarchs’ No. 1 starter, will go against the Cavaliers. Gregory left Friday’s win over Jacksonville early when he was struck in the leg by a line drive, but has been pronounced ready to pitch.

In addition, Finwood saved his top relievers for Monday. He made that decision after falling behind 5-0 to UVA in Sunday night’s game.

“We’ve got plenty of bullets to fire on the mound,” Finwood said. “We’ll just have to have guys grit their teeth more at the plate and get some balls in play.”

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