Virginia’s offense busts loose in late innings to capture regional crown

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photos: UVA Athletics

Cliff Godwin believes without a doubt that Virginia has the best offensive team in all of college baseball. Still, the East Carolina coach, knowing his pitching staff was running on fumes, didn’t think the host Cavaliers would run away with the regional title on Sunday night.

UVA coach Brian O’Connor, with all due respect to Godwin, begged to differ.

“I felt that it was going to happen … that it was coming,” O’Connor said about Virginia’s eventual late-innings explosion that led the Cavaliers (48-12) to an 8-3 win that eliminated the Pirates and secured UVA’s eighth appearance in the NCAA Super Regionals next weekend against the winner of the Duke-Coastal Carolina series.

“Our guys don’t get down on themselves … they might get frustrated at times, but they were able to put it behind them and that speaks to the depth of this lineup,” O’Connor said in UVA’s comeback win.

Virginia trailed 2-1 heading into the top of the seventh against ECU, perhaps the most underrated baseball program in the nation — or at least the best program in the country not to have made it to the College World Series. Godwin’s Pirates, ranked 20th nationally in team earned run average (4.27), aren’t easy to score against, i.e. Virginia’s narrow 2-1 win over ECU in Saturday night’s first meeting of the two.

Through six innings Sunday night, the Cavaliers had mustered only one run on five hits and left five runners stranded, including bases loaded in the third.

Then, as O’Connor expected, all hell broke loose.

Centerfielder Ethan O’Donnell, who had gone hitless in UVA’s first two games of the regional, including none in the Cavaliers’ 18-hit assault against Army in the opener, blasted a two-out, three-run homer to left center off ECU reliever Landon Ginn, pushing Virginia to a 4-2 advantage.

The fireworks had only just begun. Kyle Teel led off the top of the eighth with a single up the middle, moved to second on a sacrifice by Ethan Anderson, before ECU intentionally walked Casey Saucke. Anthony Stephan ripped a fly ball deep to center that appeared to bounce off the wall.

Stephan sprinted around the bases, nearly catching Saucke just ahead of him on the base paths, for what the capacity crowd of 5,919 and a TV audience thought was a three-run, inside-the-park home run for a 7-2 lead. The ball, upon further slow-motion review, actually sailed over the fence for a home run, caroming off the centerfield wall and back onto the field.

Later, in a postgame press conference, ECU center fielder Lane Hoover confirmed the roundtripper.

“It hit two or three feet above the yellow line … I could hear it hit the wood,” Hoover said.

While ECU added a run in the bottom of the eighth (7-3), the Pirates made Virginia sweat as Hoover’s single loaded the bases with two outs. UVA’s third reliever of the game, Angelo Tonas, got the next batter to fly out to left to squelch the uprising.

In the ninth, Teel put an exclamation point on Virginia’s 48th win of the season with a home run deep to center, well over the 404-foot mark, his 13th of the season for the eventual 8-3 score.

During O’Connor’s postgame, at which he was accompanied by O’Donnell and starting winning pitcher Connelly Early (now 11-2), the UVA skipper pointed out his team’s offensive depth.

“You know, Kyle Teel’s not sitting at this table (usually reserved for the stars of the game) and the guy had four hits and two RBI,” the coach said. “I mean, look at the weekend that he had. Stephan had a three-run homer. There’s a lot of guys contributing. It’s a very mature approach.”

Godwin, who felt Saturday’s thriller-diller could have gone either way, knew it wouldn’t be easy coming into Charlottesville and stealing a regional. The Cavaliers are 35-4 at Disharoon Park this season and have not lost to a nonconference team all year (28-0).

“They’re really good,” Godwin said of UVA’s offense. “I mean, for us to keep them down for really 15 innings out of 18 that we played is pretty good. In my opinion, they have the best offense in the country.”

Virginia leads the nation in team batting average (.335) and is seventh in runs scored (8.9 per game). O’Connor will quickly tell you that it’s all about the depth, one-through-nine in the order, and everyone not only knows their roles, but embraces those roles.

But the Cavaliers didn’t get this far on offense alone. Their pitching, particularly in the regionals, has been spectacular. UVA’s staff is sixth nationally in team ERA (4.27) and what better time to showcase it than the postseason.

The pitching performances (plus a solid defense) didn’t escape O’Connor’s thoughts.

“We gave up five runs (in the regional) … I mean, that is remarkable,” the coach pointed out. “The pitching staff and the defense … in this day and age in college baseball with all the runs being scored, to give up five total runs over three games. I believe that’s the lowest, or the second-lowest we’ve ever had in a regional.”

O’Connor was correct. In the 2011 regional, UVA surrendered only three runs total in three games (6-0 over Navy, 10-2 over St. John’s and 13-1 over ECU) en route to a College World Series appearance.

Now, it’s on to a Super Regional, where the Cavaliers will likely require a similar effort in order to advance to Omaha, and O’Connor is champing at the bit for another trip to baseball’s Promised Land.