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|GAME AT A
Point: Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, because Cal never showed any ability to generate substantial offense against Tyler Wilson, but the Golden Bears were still in the game until the sixth inning. Virginia led just 2-0 when Kenny Swab hit a line drive into the long, jagged shadows cast by the TD Ameritrade Park awning in center field. The ball bounced past Cal center fielder Darrel Matthews and wound up at the wall—and Swab raced around to score on what was ruled a single and a three-base error. That play seemed to shake the Bears and energize the Cavs, who broke it open with three more runs in the frame. “I think it got away from us a little bit in that inning,” Cal coach David Esquer said. “I thought it was a very manageable game that, had we done some things,
you could be sitting in the seventh inning with 2-0 or 3-0 game, and
we’ve been in that spot before. Maybe score a run, put some
pressure to get some baserunners late. But that didn’t happen.”
OMAHA—During his previous life as a bullpen stalwart, Tyler Wilson succeeded largely by wearing hitters out with his hard, sharp slider. That weapon made him a key moment-of-truth reliever for two seasons at Virginia, but when the Cavaliers asked him to move into a starting role as a senior, Wilson knew he had to adjust his approach.
“In the fall, that was one of the things that I felt was imperative for me to do better at: to establish better fastball command,” Wilson said. “Especially as a starter, if you don’t have command of the zone—in and out, up and down—then you have to rely too heavily on your other pitches, which allows batters to see them early in the game, see them often, and results in more barreled balls deep in the ballgame.”
In Thursday’s elimination game against California, Wilson’s improved ability to pitch off his fastball was evident, and essential. The righthander went after Cal’s hitters with his 89-91 mph fastball all game, helping him induce a lot of weak contact early in counts. He even used it as a putaway pitch in three of his five strikeouts. His efficient attack enabled him to work a career-high-tying 7 2/3 innings, during which he threw just 94 pitches. He shut down Cal’s potent offense, and the Cavaliers cruised to an 8-1 win, setting up a showdown against South Carolina on Friday.
“His fastball command, I thought, was really good tonight, and he was able to dump that slider in or get them to chase it,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said of Wilson. “He used their aggressiveness to his advantage.”
Wilson gave up just five hits and did not issue a walk. He retired 11 straight hitters from the second inning until the sixth, and no Golden Bear reached second base from the first inning until the eighth, when Cal scored its only run. Wilson recorded 14 flyouts and just three groundball outs.
“I kind of anticipated people saying, ‘Coach, did the magic just run out with your club?’ ” Cal coach David Esquer said. “And I said, ‘Boy, if magic was low-and-hard contact to the middle of the diamond, then it absolutely did.’ Because that’s what we had to do. And we just didn’t get that. I don’t think their shortstop or their second baseman had an assist all day long. I don’t think we hit a ball to the middle of the diamond and made them make a play . . . That’s a tribute to the pitcher.”
Wilson’s ability to attack the strike zone has been his calling card all season. He has 124 strikeouts and just 22 walks in 104 innings, helping him go 10-0, 2.24. Wilson’s Cal counterpart, junior righthander Dixon Anderson, also entered the game with 22 walks—in just 67 innings. His inconsistent command has led to an inconsistent season, and he needed to be on his game in order to contain Virginia’s relentless offense.
Anderson kept the Cavaliers at bay for two innings, but Virginia ratcheted up its pressure in the third inning, scoring two runs and knocking Anderson out of the game. UVa. broke it open with four more in the sixth—by doing what Cal aspired to do—but could not do—against Wilson.
“We professed to a lot of our guys about using the middle of the diamond and being able to stay inside the breaking pitch,” Esquer said. “Boy, (the Cavs) did that textbook. If you look at a lot of their big hits, all to the middle of the diamond, even in breaking ball counts. And they just did an outstanding job offensively and took advantage of any little crack that you gave them. I think we misplayed a bunt early in the game and they turned that into two runs, and that’s what great teams do. Then they got the pitching to back them up, where they’re not going to make it easy for you. They’re not just going to walk two, hit a batter, make an error, and then all of a sudden you’re back in the ballgame. And that’s the difference.
“They make you play so well to beat them. I have a lot of respect for that club—very deserving for all the attention they’ve gotten throughout the year. And it’s going to be a heck of a semifinal with South Carolina and Virginia.”
It sure is. Neither O’Connor nor South Carolina coach Ray Tanner has named a starter for Friday’s game, but expect a battle between first-team All-America lefthanders Danny Hultzen and Michael Roth, though O’Connor said he was also considering sophomore righty Whit Mayberry.
It won’t be easy for Virginia to beat South Carolina twice in a row and make the CWS Finals—but Wilson made that prospect a little less daunting by pitching deep into the game and sparing the UVa. bullpen.
“There’s no doubt that was huge,” O’Connor said, “the fact that he was able to go 7 2/3 innings and we only had to use (Cody) Winiarski for a short stint, for what we have potentially in front of us—obviously a game tomorrow night, and if we can find a way to win tomorrow night, another one the next day. Saving everybody we possibly can helps your chances of advancing on. That was big for us—there’s no doubt.”