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June 25, 2011
OMAHA, Neb. – Moments after Virginia’s 2011 baseball season ending in the most excruciating fashion imaginable on Friday night, head coach Brian O’Connor huddled with his team in front of the first base dugout at TD Ameritrade Park.
The Cavaliers’ hopes of winning this year’s College World Series title had ended with a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to defending national champion South Carolina in 13 innings. And while there were “what ifs” galore for outside observers to study and analyze, they were not the subject of O’Connor’s postgame meeting.
“There's not a script for it of what you say,” O’Connor said “I just told them that I'm extremely proud of them, that they needed to walk out of here with their heads high; that some people might feel that you're the number one national seed, that maybe you failed. But that is certainly not the case.
“The lessons that they learned in our baseball program, that I assure them, 20 years from now they'll come back and tell me I was right, that these lessons they learned on this field and as a group and as a team will make them better men. That was the message to them.”
Though Virginia fell short of its ultimate goal, the Cavaliers finished the season with a 56-12 record, setting a school season record for wins and claiming their second Atlantic Coast Conference championship in three years. Pitchers Danny Hultzen, Will Roberts and Branden Kline, as well as catcher John Hicks, were named to at least one All-America team, and pitcher Tyler Wilson was named the recipient of the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award earlier Friday.
”'I’ve got a tremendous amount of pride in this team and what they accomplished this year,” O’Connor said. “It's really spectacular what we did all year, and the reason is because so many different players had to emerge during the season for us to be here in Omaha right now.
“The fact that we lost so many players off of last year's team in the draft, and so many players that stepped up for this team all year long … I'm very, very proud of them and proud of this group.”
HULTZEN GIVES HIS ALL
Hultzen, as expected, got the starting call on the mound for Virginia. The Bethesda, Md., junior dazzled the series-high crowd of 25,888 by striking out the first six Gamecock batters and eight of the first 10.
But even as the buzz surrounding Hultzen’s performance reached a crescendo, both he and his head coach knew any contribution he gave to the Cavaliers would be short-term. Hultzen had fallen ill earlier Friday, and O’Connor refused to subject his star pitcher to extended duty. Hultzen left the game at the end of the third inning after throwing just 40 pitches.
“I thought Danny Hultzen in the first three innings showed why the Seattle Mariners took him as the second pick overall (in this year’s MLB Draft),” O’Connor said. “His stuff was absolutely dominating. But my plan coming into the game was for him to have a short stint. Danny was not feeling the best today. He was feeling under the weather, and he was gutting it out as much as he could.
“He was in pretty miserable shape after the first inning. This kid's got a very, very bright future. And I was not going to put that at risk with him feeling under the weather on four days' rest and put his career in jeopardy. I wasn’t. If we don't win a national championship, we don't win a national championship. That kid's done so much for our program for the last three years, and I owed that to him.”
RELIEVERS STEP UP
Even after Hultzen departed, Virginia received strong pitching from relievers Kyle Crockett and Branden Kline, who combined to limit South Carolina to seven hits and two earned runs over nine innings while walking four batters and striking out 10.
Kline, who tied a school and ACC record with 18 saves while earning All-America honors as a closer this season, worked a surprising five innings while throwing a game-high 107 pitches. He issued four walks but repeatedly worked out of trouble while allowing just three hits, striking out seven and not allowing a run.
“I took it pitch to pitch,” Kline said. “I really didn't try to make anything bigger than it was. As Coach said, it wasn't pretty. I just went out there tried to throw strikes and tried to battle.”
Kline was matched head-to-head for most of his stint by South Carolina closer Matt Price, who pitched 5.2 innings and threw 95 pitches. Price topped Kline when it came to escape acts, working out of bases-loaded situations without allowing runs on three occasions. The evening was frustrating for both teams in a number of ways, as reflected by the fact the Cavaliers left 15 men on base and the Gamecocks stranded 14.
“It was kind of Kline and Price toe to toe, and pitching with runners in scoring position a lot,” O’Connor said. “Neither one of them was going to give in, and neither team could catch a break.”
South Carolina scored its winning run in the bottom of the 13th after Virginia’s fourth pitcher, Cody Winiarski, gave up a leadoff single, then made consecutive throwing errors to second and third base as the Gamecocks laid down sacrifice bunts. The miscues allowed pinch-runner Adam Matthews to take second and third base, and then score as the second errant throw bounced into the camera well.
Winiarski faced the media the postgame press conference with calm and straight-forwardness.
“I mean, it's simple,” Winiarski said. “They wanted to get an out, and we weren't able to capitalize on that and just take what they were giving to us. Those are plays we practice every day in practice and just didn't execute.”
O’Connor played on the 1991 Creighton University team that also saw its College World Series hopes foiled by an extra-inning loss.
“This was a very similar game as the game that I lost in 1991,” he said. “You know, I think it's harder as a coach losing a game like this just because you want this opportunity for these players to get a chance to compete for the national championship.
“It's my livelihood, coaching college baseball, but it's (the players’) experience. I had my experience 20 years ago. This is their experience, and you want it so bad, for it to work out for them, so they can continue on (in the College World Series) and have a chance to win it all.”
Steve Phillips, Assistant Director of Communications for the Atlantic Coast Conference, takes you Beyond the ACCtion in Omaha for the 2011 College World Series. Check theACC.com daily for more entries.