Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Many reasons to embrace these Cavaliers

Correction (June, 14, 2011: 9 a.m.): Corey Hunt was the pinch-runner who scored the winning run. The baserunner was mistakenly identified in the original version of this story, which has been updated. | Our corrections policy

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Jared King didn't even know where to run.

Home plate was the closest, and a mob scene had begun where the winning run had scored. King joined that for a moment. Then he hustled to first to find Chris Taylor, whose two-out, two-run single had somehow sent Virginia to Omaha.

"I couldn't tell you anything after that," said King, the Cavaliers' junior first baseman from Radford. "You're just looking for people to hug."

Hug 'em all, Jared. Hug Will Roberts for that dazzling effort on the mound. Hug Kenny Swab for the homer that energized this place. Hug David Coleman for slapping that two-strike pitch up the middle for the rally-kindling hit in the bottom of the ninth, pinch-hitter Reed Gragnani for drawing the walk that loaded the bases, Taylor for coming up with the biggest swing in the history of Virginia baseball.

UVa coach Brian O'Connor said he'll have to watch the video. Only then will he recall exactly how he celebrated the immediate aftermath of Monday's stunning 3-2 victory over UC Irvine in Game 3 of the Charlottesville Super Regional. It's going to be that way for a lot of people who attended.

What they will remember is that they were in no hurry to be anyplace but here. That goes for the players, who broke out in random bear hugs all over the field, then headed to each corner to high-five spectators. And it goes for the 5,050 fans who packed this stadium on a workday, almost all of whom were still standing and chanting long after it was over.

"There's something about our team and our program that fans and people in this community can identify with," O'Connor said. "I don't know what it is."

Here's what it is about these Cavaliers: One, they're talented. They had eight guys drafted last week. UC Irvine brought an outstanding team here this weekend, but the Anteaters had only five selected.

Two, they're smart. Just look at the four principal starting pitchers who have led UVa to the College World Series. Ace Danny Hultzen is a first-team Academic All-American. Tyler Wilson has a bachelor's in biology. Cody Winiarski is a graduate in chemistry. Monday's starter, Roberts, earned his degree in only three years.

And after Monday's effort, let there be no doubt that this whole team is clutch.

That was really the only question left to answer, wasn't it? The Cavs had spent most of the season ranked No. 1. They came into the postseason as the nation's top seed. They blew through their regional with ease.

But on Monday, the pressure arrived like never before. Sunday's loss put UVa at risk for the first time this postseason. O'Connor's nerves prevented him from consuming more than half a chicken breast and two spoonfuls of rice over 24 hours. And the specter of last year's blowout loss to Oklahoma -- at this same point in the season -- lingered for everyone in that dugout.

"I don't know if there's any way to describe the feeling that we felt last year in that last game when we made the final out," Roberts said.

So they fixed it Monday -- by not making a final out.

And that's all UC Irvine needed. In fact, the Anteaters needed less than that. As pitcher Jimmy Litchfield put it, they were "one strike away from the dream." They had their ace, Matt Summers, on the mound to do it.

But Coleman singled on a 2-2 pitch. A buzz began to build. Then King ripped an infield single off Summers' leg. The buzz became a roar. Then Summers, possibly affected by King's shot, walked Gragnani on four pitches.

The roar became a din.

You know what happened next. Taylor picked on a 0-1 fastball and smacked a grounder up the middle. UVa closer Branden Kline -- on the hook for the loss at that moment -- jumped over the bullpen wall. The ball eluded the UC Irvine second baseman. Kline threw his glove in the air. One run scored. Kline began to sprint.

Around third came pinch runner Corey Hunt for the game-winner.

"As soon as he slid in," Kline said. "I was the first one out there to tackle him."

He would not be the last.

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