Lots of Wahoo heroes in Virginia’s 5-4, walk-off win over Mississippi State

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

The way Harrison Didawick viciously swung at the first two pitches in the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday night, Brian O’Connor knew his left fielder was swinging for the fences.

Who could blame Didawick, one potential swing away from Virginia’s single-season home run record, his team knotted 4-4 with visiting Mississippi State in the NCAA Charlottesville Regional, the winner advancing to the championship game. Falling behind 0-2 in the count didn’t matter — he was focused.

“It looked like, from the anger in his swings, he looked like he was trying to end the game himself,” O’Connor said in his postgame chat after watching his Cavaliers fight from behind for the 21st time this season in edging the Bulldogs, 5-4, in dramatic fashion.

Didawick, sitting at the same table, nodded agreeingly. O’Connor then noted that Didawick did what great hitters do. He adjusted and drove the ball the other way for a leadoff double to left to spark UVA’s comeback. One out later, third baseman Eric Becker, one of the Cavaliers heroes in the game, reached on a fielder’s choice, sending Didawick to third, 90 feet from victory.

Up came center fielder Bobby Whalen, the No. 9 hitter in the batting order, who has gone hitless in the regional in seven at-bats. Whalen hit a chopper up the middle, well over the pitcher’s head and directly toward second base, where Mississippi State’s Amani Larry booted the ball, allowing Didawick to score on a walk-off, emptying UVA’s dugout for a wild celebration.

“You’ve got to give [Virginia’s] hitters credit … I thought the guy (Didawick) that opened up the ninth, his double in the gap was a great swing, and that puts a lot of pressure on you when you’re the other team,” said Bulldogs coach Chris Lemonis.

Virginia (43-15) advanced to tonight’s championship game (6 p.m. at Disharoon Park), while Mississippi State (39-22) faces St. John’s at noon in an elimination game, with the winner taking on UVA.

The Bulldogs had taken a 4-3 lead in the top of the fourth on a solo home-run blast by cleanup hitter Hunter Hines (his 16th of the season), and MSU’s starting pitcher Jurrangelo Cijntje held the Cavaliers at bay until the seventh inning, when Virginia finally got to him.

Jacob Ference led off the seventh with a single to left, followed by a single off the bat of Didawick, both runners advancing on a sacrifice bunt from Henry Godbout. Becker continued to be a thorn in Cijntje’s saddle when he ripped a two-run single up the middle to tie the game at 4-4.

Becker had stung Cijntje in the second inning with a two-run triple off the centerfield wall.

“Becker killed us tonight,” Lemonis said. “I think he drove in about everything.”

Becker was 2 for 4 with 4 RBI.

While Cijntje gave Virginia fits, his counterpart, UVA southpaw Evan Blanco did likewise to the Bulldogs. Blanco went deep, hurling six innings, scattered eight hits, struck out seven and didn’t issue a walk, giving up only three earned runs.

When he gave way to freshman right-hander Matt Augustin, the latter didn’t skip a beat, going 2.2 innings, allowing two hits, striking out four and walking three. Augustin turned in a brassy performance, pitching his way out of two hellacious jams.

With one out in the seventh, MSU’s Johnny Long reached on a fielder’s choice and Larry walked before David Mershon watched the count go to 3-0 against Virginia’s freshman.

Talk about a tight spot.

Augustin bore down, got it to a full count, got Mershon on a fly ball to left, then struck out Dakota Jordan to end the threat.

With two outs and a runner on in the eighth, the Bulldogs’ Logan Kohler also had a 3-0 count, but Augustin again got it to a full count before Kohler singled to center. With runners at first and third, Augustin struck out Aaron Downs to squelch the rally.

He was replaced in the ninth after striking out the first two batters and walking Mershon, who took third on a single by Jordan. O’Connor brought in lefty Angelo Tonas, who fantastically threw only one pitch and got Hines to ground out to retire the Bulldogs. Tonas thusly recorded a one-pitch win (he’s 3-0 on the season) and kept his arm available for future use in this regional.

“Blanco hung in there and pitched us to the back part of the game before we gave the ball to Matt Augustin, and for a true freshman to go out there in that environment, in that situation, with what was at stake, was incredibly impressive,” O’Connor said.

While Cijntje — who O’Connor said was one of the best starters Virginia has faced this season — managed to prevent the Cavaliers’ explosive offense from going wild, everyone figured it was just a matter of time, a ticking time bomb, before UVA found a way to win.

“That’s why they’re hosting, I mean, there’s not an out in [Virginia’s batting order],” Lemonis said. “We played Tennessee (the nation’s No. 1 seed) last week and we played [Virginia] this week, and I would have to argue those are probably two of the best offenses in the country.

“You get through a couple and you take a deep breath and then you’ve got another guy like Becker who hurt you.”

O’Connor said his team will stick with the same approach for Sunday’s schedule as he did Saturday, with coaches meeting late Saturday night and again early Sunday to prepare for either Mississippi State or St. John’s, and to determine who the starting pitcher will be, noting that his pitching staff is in great shape, essentially using only four pitchers in the first two games and even one of those (Chase Hungate) will be available if needed.