June 5, 2017
FORT WORTH, Texas -- After yet another weather delay in an NCAA baseball regional marked by such interruptions -- this one because of lightning -- the elimination game between Virginia and Dallas Baptist resumed Monday at 6:48 p.m. Eastern at TCU's Lupton Stadium.
The second-seeded Cavaliers trailed the third-seeded Patriots 11-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning. Moments earlier, UVA's players had returned to the field without any fiery words from head coach Brian O'Connor.
"I've never been a big believer in the rah-rah speech," O'Connor said later. "I don't think that you have to [do that], because of the pride that the players have in their success and the program. They know what's at stake and they know what's expected out of them each and every day when they come to the ball park: to be ready to play no matter what the situation is."
That pride was evident in the top of the ninth, when Virginia rallied for five runs to cut DBU's lead to 11-8. With only one out, the Wahoos had runners on first and second, with the tying run at the plate and a stunning comeback within their reach. But Dallas Baptist closer Dalton Higgins struck out Caleb Knight and then retired Nate Eikhoff on a grounder to snuff out the rally and end the Cavaliers' season.
Dallas Baptist scored five runs in the first inning and four in the second and then added two solo home runs -- one in the seventh and the other in the eighth -- to build a lead Virginia could not overcome.
UVA's starter, sophomore right-hander Evan Sperling, lasted only four batters Monday. He walked two and hit the other two, after which O'Connor had seen enough. In came sophomore right-hander Grant Donahue, who didn't make it out of the first either.
After Donahue walked DBU's No. 9 hitter, Jon Skidmore, on four pitches with the bases loaded, O'Connor turned to junior left-hander Bennett Sousa. Sousa made it into the second, but sophomore right-hander Chesdin Harrington finished the inning for the Cavaliers.
"I was just trying keep [the score] where it was, and I think I did a good job of that," Harrington said. "The defense was making great plays behind me."
Harrington pitched brilliantly Monday, allowing no hits and no runs in a career-long 4.2 innings, but by the time he entered the game Dallas Baptist had a commanding lead. The Cavaliers scored one run in the third and another in the fifth, but not until the ninth did they display the offensive firepower that was their trademark this season.
"This game quite simply came down to the first couple innings," O'Connor said. "Sometimes the game is as simple as, if you don't throw strikes and handle the baseball, you're not going to win."
On Saturday night, behind junior right-hander Derek Casey, UVA opened the regional with a 6-3 win over the Patriots. Had the `Hoos defeated DBU again, they would have faced top-seeded TCU on Monday night.
O'Connor said he hoped Sperling would "go out there and give us four or five innings and throw enough strikes to keep us in the ball game. I really believed that he would go out and do that, and I know his teammates believed that too.
"My plan, if we were fortunate enough to win this game, was then to start Chesdin Harrington tonight against TCU. But we were put into a situation there after two innings that I needed to put Chesdin in the game, and I thought he was terrific and very, very efficient."
The `Hoos entered the NCAA tournament with a .324 batting average but hit only .267 in their three games in Fort Worth. Ultimately, though, pitching proved to be the Cavaliers' Achilles heel in their 14th straight trip to the NCAA tourney, and that was no shock.
Junior left-hander Adam Haseley, Virginia's No. 1 starter for most of the season, didn't pitch after April 29 because of a bone bruise in his throwing arm, though he continued to play center field and bat.
Another weekend starter, freshman right-hander Noah Murdock, suffered a season-ending injury May 13. That depleted the pitching staff, and when the Cavaliers fell into the losers' bracket after losing Saturday night to TCU -- starter Daniel Lynch lasted only 2.2 innings in that game -- their odds of advancing to an NCAA super regional diminished significantly.
The Cavaliers' health also was a major storyline in 2016, when they were without Sperling, Casey, Robbie Coman and Jake McCarthy for all or most of the year. That team's season ended in an NCAA regional, too, but O'Connor refused Monday night to use injuries as an excuse.
"That's part of the game," O'Connor said. "Every team in this field has injuries that they're dealing with. Maybe we've just got to do a little bit better job of having a little bit better depth, so we can overcome it.
"You gotta have a little bit of good fortune. The years that we've had really, really deep runs into this tournament, we've stayed healthy, and the ball has bounced our way a little bit.
"You look across the country in these regionals. You see the upsets and the teams that maybe aren't supposed to win. It's about getting hot and having some good fortune. You've got to be good first, but you've got to have those things, and those are the teams that advance on, and certainly we just didn't have it this year."
Eikhoff led off the ninth with a groundout Monday night, and the `Hoos seemed destined to go quietly into the offseason. But sophomore Andy Weber, who was 8 for 11 in the regional, doubled off the center-field wall and then scored on junior Ernie Clement's single.
McCarthy, a sophomore, followed with a single. Clement came home on a Haseley double, and then junior Pavin Smith crushed a three-run homer over the fence in right center. Suddenly, it was 11-8, and Virginia's next two batters reached, Coman on a single and Cameron Simmons on a walk.
"When we string together hits, they're contagious," Smith said. "We always believed we were going to come back and win."
Alas for the Cavaliers, their comeback stalled, and the Patriots were the ones celebrating after the final out Monday night.
"I'm most disappointed for the seniors and other players that will not be wearing our uniform again," O'Connor said. "There's certainly some players that have had very, very accomplished careers in our uniform that won't be with us next year.
"I think about somebody like Robbie Coman that's been with us for five years and has been a 100-percent committed and unselfish player in this program. He's been a part of a lot of really, really successful teams here and has done some tremendous things, as have others."
Coman, a graduate student, is out of eligibility, as are seniors Alec Bettinger, Jack Roberts and Tyler Shambora. Among the juniors who may leave to pursue professional careers are Haseley, Smith, Clement and closer Tommy Doyle.
"Certainly they've won a lot of games and they've been tremendous players, but most importantly they're great representatives of our program," O'Connor said. "They're class young men that have done things the right way and played hard and certainly have represented our university and our baseball program the right way.
"It's been passed along to them when they were young, and they learned the right way, and that's how we've been able to over the years build a really, really strong tradition. They learn from the older players and they continue to pass it along to the next guys."
The `Hoos finished their 14th season under O'Connor with a 43-16 record. He won't soon forget this team's resolve.
"There's been weekends that we've been drummed pretty good, on maybe a Friday, and we've come back and won the next two ball games," O'Connor said. "I think the resiliency of this ball club has been there all year long. I just think we fell into too much of a deficit [Monday]."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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