Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. $12 for 12 weeks.

Virginia wins NCAA regional as bats awaken

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia's baseball team ranks fourth nationally in scoring and 11th in batting average. Yet in their first two NCAA tournament games, the Cavaliers scored a paltry four runs combined and hit a pedestrian .277.

It was Virginia's worst two-game output this season.

Translation: The Cavaliers were due Sunday against Elon.

Sure enough, Virginia battered the Phoenix 11-3 to win this four-team regional in the minimum three games. The Cavaliers (50-10) will host a best-of-three super regional next weekend against the winner of Monday's game between Mississippi State and Central Arkansas.

"They're not going to score two runs every game," Elon coach Mike Kennedy said. "They're too good a club. ... We knew what they're capable of." 

The tournament's No. 6 overall seed, Virginia entered Sunday averaging 7.9 runs per game. But the Cavaliers flailed at the plate Friday and Saturday in victories over Army (2-1) and Elon (2-0).

"I just knew it was a matter of time before some of these guys broke out," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "They've worked too hard to put themselves in this position. ... If you just stick with what you've done and don't try to change much, good things are going to happen.

"Where guys get themselves in trouble is when they try to make quick adjustments rather than refer back to what has given them success."

None was due more than designated hitter Derek Fisher. He was batting .305 entering Sunday but was 0-for-22 in his NCAA tournament career, three games last season and two this.

Baseball can be cruel that way, especially in postseason, where reputations, for better or worse, are made.

Fisher grounded out in his first at-bat Sunday, but with the bases loaded in the third inning, he lined a two-run single to right, tying the game 3-all. An inning later, his RBI single to center gave the Cavaliers an 8-3 lead.

To his credit, O'Connor never lost confidence in Fisher. Even after Elon's Nate Young had thrown 10 straight balls, and despite Fisher's postseason struggles, O'Connor had Fisher swinging away on the 1-0 count in the third that produced his two-run hit.

"All the eyes are on the hitter, all the eyes are on the pitcher," Fisher said of bases-loaded situations. "He's trying to throw a strike, he's trying to get ahead in the count, and I'm trying to to put a good swing on a ball. By no means was I going to take for sure.

"There was one pitch in one spot I was looking for. Fortunately I got it. ... Fastball, in."

Said O'Connor: "I told him, 'Go up there and be aggressive. Don't be passive. ... Derek Fisher as a hitter is so gifted. If he just sticks with it and has confidence in himself, it's just a matter of time before he has a monster day, and back-to-back monster days." 

Similarly, first baseman Jared King was 1-for-19 in NCAA tournament play prior to Sunday. And like Fisher, he broke out, with an RBI double in a six-run third and a single in the fourth.

Compensating for the offensive funk, the Cavaliers' pitching, starting and relief, was sterling in the regional's first two games, yielding one run while striking out 21 and walking two.

Whit Mayberry allowed three runs in as many innings Sunday, two on a first-inning homer by Ryan Kinsella, second nationally in home runs (21) and RBI (78). Trailing 3-0, the Cavaliers were facing the prospect of a winner-take-all rematch with the Phoenix on Monday.

The Southern Conference champion and future Colonial Athletic Association addition, Elon certainly wasn't intimidated by Virginia. The Phoenix during the regular season faced Kansas State, North Carolina State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Louisville, all No. 1 regional seeds. Elon went 3-6 against those clubs.

But this was the Phoenix' first regional final in six NCAA appearances. The Cavaliers have been among a regional's final two teams six times in O'Connor's 10 seasons.

Sometimes, pedigree matters, and once Virginia scored its six-pack, this one was about done.

Reliever David Rosenberger, a freshman left-hander with a microscopic 1.42 ERA in 18 previous appearances, made sure of that, silencing the Phoenix (34-30) for five innings, his longest stint this season in his first NCAA tournament appearance.

During this regional, the Cavaliers bullpen worked shutout 11 innings. In the three games, Virginia allowed four runs while opponents batted .221.

"Hitting, you have all heard this many times, is the hardest thing to do in sports," O'Connor said Saturday, "and it can come and go. I've always talked about how, to win at championship time, you have to pitch and you have to defend."

Aside from whether Virginia's bats would stir, another question that loomed Sunday was whether closer Kyle Crockett would be available, and if so, for how long.

Crockett recorded two-inning saves Friday and Saturday, and while he worked three consecutive days in April against Wake Forest, those appearances totaled only 3.1 innings. In four shutout innings Friday and Saturday, Crockett fanned seven and walked none.

"We've had some pretty special closers here, and this is no disrespect to any of them, but this guy is the best," O'Connor said after the 2-0 victory over Elon.

A graduate of Poquoson High, Crockett was voted the regional's most outstanding player.

Virginia's bats made the Crockett question moot. He enjoyed a much-deserved day off and will be fully rested for next weekend.

If the Cavaliers can match, or even approach, this weekend's pitching in the super regional, they'll be bound for the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the third time in five years.

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/ teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
Comments
Loading