Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Things unravel quickly in Virginia loss

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The Virginia baseball players lingered in the dugout long after it was over Monday night. They slumped on the benches, arms crossed, staring off at a celebration they thought would be theirs.

Eventually, a handful peeled off and headed to the interview room. The chosen few, charged with explaining what happened here. But how could they explain? What words could they craft to describe the disappointment? What witty maxim could they lean on to make this all feel better?

There's no delicate way to put this: In their most critical game of the year, the Cavaliers imploded. Couldn't hit, couldn't field, couldn't pitch. A complete, heart-wrenching failure.

The result: their most lopsided loss of the year, a 11-0 trouncing at the hands of Oklahoma that denied them a second straight trip to the College World Series.

It ended with respectful ovations for each of the five UVa pitchers who trotted off the hill. The first three saw their stellar ERAs climb substantially; the last two wielded nothing more than mops. It ended with chants of "U-V-A! U-V-A!" as the Sooners dogpiled to the left of the mound at Davenport Field, a crowd of 4,801 showing their love for a team that provided so many thrills before it all fell apart.

And that's the lone positive here. Everyone had plenty of time to process this loss and formulate the classiest possible response to the conclusion of a 51-14 season. The Cavs did not lose on a ninth-inning homer or a Buckner-style error. They did not trot out any convenient goats to become message board punchlines for years to come.

They just lost.


The capacity crowd showed up in a partying mood, but the atmosphere turned sour in a hurry. After a close call on a 3-2 pitch went Oklahoma's way, extending the top of the first inning, OU right fielder Cody Reine punished freshman right-hander Branden Kline with a missile that completely left the park for a three-run homer.

That 3-2 pitch -- and that subsequent blast -- hovered over this place for several innings. Immediately after it happened, home plate umpire Chuck Lyon glared toward the dugout at UVa coach Brian O'Connor, who presumably expressed a few thoughts on the size of the zone. Fans booed. Every close call that followed -- even the ones replays showed the umpires got right -- prompted boos from the stands.

The cumulative effect? An overwhelming sense that things were aligned against UVa on this night. A relatively small deficit -- it was only 4-0 heading into the fifth inning, remember -- seemed much bigger.

(In the boo birds' defense, Lyon did punch out UVa's Dan Grovatt on a 3-1 pitch in the bottom of the first. Just whipped out the ol' chainsaw on strike two. I've watched a lot of baseball, and I can't say I'd ever seen that. Fortunately, Grovatt was granted the full allotment of strikes and allowed to complete his at-bat).

Controversial calls wound up being the least of UVa's problems, of course, but you get the point. It all just felt wrong. Immediately.

Offensively, the Cavs looked like they were trying to strike a damp match all night. Leadoff singles were followed by first-pitch pop-outs. Promising rallies got swallowed up by double plays.

OU starter Bobby Shore deserves plenty of credit for this. While he did not exactly dominate -- he struck out only five -- he demoralized, repeatedly making the big pitches at the right times.

You can't will your way to Omaha. No matter how much desire, hope and energy packed this place early Monday night, OU was simply crisper, sharper, more deserving.

Baseball is the ultimate bounce-back game. You lose like this, you come back tomorrow and go at it again.

Unless, of course, you can't. In that case, you stay in the dugout as long as they'll let you, no closer to answers than you've been for the past three hours of torture.

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