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|GAME AT A
Point: The Cavaliers answered Dustin Garneau’s two-run homer in the top of the second inning with a four-spot in the bottom of the frame. The rally was keyed by freshmen: Steven Proscia got it started with a one-out double; John Hicks put UVa. on the board with an RBI single; Keith Werman tied it up with another RBI single; and Danny Hultzen gave Virginia a lead it would not relinquish with a two-run single.
OMAHA—Virginia couldn’t have been more prepared to face Cal State Fullerton in Monday’s elimination game.
The Cavaliers had already beaten Big West champion UC Irvine (a team that Cavs coach Brian O’Connor said is similar to Fullerton offensively but without as much pop) twice in regionals. They had already survived two elimination games in the hostile atmosphere of the Oxford Super Regional. And O’Connor, who played in the College World Series with Creighton and coached here with Notre Dame, knew exactly what to tell his players: Embrace the distractions and the nerves, and move on.
That’s exactly what Virginia did Monday, dealing with the pressure of Omaha better than the Titans in a 7-5 win. It was the first CWS victory in program history, and it kept the Cavs alive to face the loser of tonight’s Arkansas-Louisiana State game on Wednesday.
“We have earned the right to be distracted by being here,” O’Connor said, recalling a long conversation he had with his team before it left for Omaha. “It’s part of the deal. I just told them about everything, from the bomb-sniffing dogs when you get off the bus, to everybody asking for your autographs everywhere you go. If you try to push them away and act like they’re not there, I think you’re making a really big mistake.
“You stay positive, stay within your game, and this game has a way of coming back to you. Stay postiive, stay together, it’s funny how things work out. They work out in your favor.”
Perhaps Virginia’s lack of rich CWS history was even an asset. Fullerton senior catcher Dustin Garneau and starting pitcher Daniel Renken both admitted that the players were too tense, partly because of the pressure of trying to live up to the impossibly high standard the Titans have set for themselves. The Titans were the first team in the nation to begin spring practice, taking the field at midnight on the first day in February they were allowed to practice; their mantra from Day One was “First to practice, last to play,” a reference to being the final team standing in Omaha. And the Titans played at such a high level over the last two weeks, they might have tried too hard to maintain that level.
“Probably a little bit—thats why we were really pressing that first game,” Garneau said. “We definitely came here and started the season expecting to win it all. We didn’t really play good baseball both games.”
Indeed, the Titans spent much of the last two games more focused on scouting reports and strategy than just playing the game.
“Dustin and I even talked about that,” Serrano said. “I think as a team when we overanalyze things too much, when we don’t just play the game, I don’t think we’re as good of a baseball team. When Daniel (Renken) overthinks, he’s not as good as he is when he just pounds the zone. We do have a lot of thinkers on our team, and I think sometimes you can overload that a little bit, and you take the athletic ability out of play and become a robot. I think that’s what happened the last two games—we didn’t play with that aggressive tenacity. Anyone who watched us in regionals or super regionals saw a bunch of aggressive athletes flying all over the field; you just didn’t see that the last two days.”
Even the strategic chess moves backfired; the Titans repeatedly played Virginia No. 9 hitter Keith Werman to go the opposite way, playing center fielder Josh Fellhauer in left-center and right fielder Gary Brown in right-center. Twice, Werman took advantage by poking soft liners right in between the two defenders, turning routine flyouts to straightaway center field into two RBIs and two runs.
“That’s one of the first things I look at is where the defense is playing,” said Werman, a scrappy, undersized freshman who is quickly becoming a fan favorite here in Omaha, as O’Connor pointed out. “I saw some holes, I saw the right-field line wide open. I stayed to my approach: hit the ball up the middle, make contact. I stayed to my approach, and it worked out for me.”
O’Connor’s own tinkering paid off. The Cavaliers moved struggling leadoff hitter Jarrett Parker (a second-team All-American and the team’s best player) down to the No. 6 hole and installed shortstop Tyler Cannon atop the order. Cannon went 1-for-2 with two walks and an RBI, and the lineup did a much better job taking advantage of scoring opportunities Monday than it did in Saturday’s loss to LSU.
“I don’t know if it had a whole lot of effect because I’m not that smart,” O’Connor said of the shuffle. “Last night I think I wrote out about six lineup options, and the one I ended up going with wasn’t even one of the six. I just thought we had to mix it up a little bit. It’s no secret that Jarrett Parker is struggling a little bit, but I’m confident he’ll come out of it. I just thought I had to move him down a little bit. I just tried to mix a righty-lefty combo as best I could, and I wanted to leave Werman and Valdes where they were. I just felt it was the right thing to do, and it worked.”
O’Connor said he planned going into the game to mix and match his pitchers as necessary to ensure the team gets to play Wednesday, and he’ll worry about the next game when the time comes. So when starter Robert Morey struggled through four innings (allowing three runs on five hits), O’Connor called upon senior righty Andrew Carraway (the team’s usual No. 3 starter) for 2 2/3 scoreless innings of relief, then went to normal bullpen stalwarts Matt Paker, Tyler Wilson and Kevin Arico.
UVa. used the same approach in Game Two of the Oxford Super Regional, and the Cavs were able to cobble together a very solid staff day in their decisive Game Three win the next day. This time around, they’ll have a day in between to rest up.
“I’m not worried about it at all,” O’Connor said. “One of the real bright spots of our team this year has been our pitching depth. I think we’ve had six or seven different pitchers start game for us, and a lot of the starters have filled different roles, pitched out of bullpen at some point. You prepare your team all season long for this opportunity.”
Fullerton has been preparing for this opportunity since before the season began. The Titans entered Omaha as one of the favorites to win the national title, and their disappointment must be profound. But that’s the thing about being Cal State Fullerton: The expectations never change.
“We think that what we have next year will be back here,” Serrano said. “I know a lot of coaches say that . . . I might even be making that ‘first to practice, last to play’ (mantra again next year).”
Then, with a rueful chuckle and a shake of his head, he added, “I should have come up with ‘first to practice, first to exit.’”