CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—When John Szefc was Marist’s head coach, his Red Foxes were shipped across the country for a 2001 regional hosted by Stanford. Led by future big leaguers Carlos Quentin, Ryan Garko, Jeremy Guthrie and Sam Fuld, that Cardinal team won 51 games and reached the College World Series championship game.
Szefc said that was the best college baseball team he’d ever seen before this year. But after his Maryland Terrapins fell to Virginia 11-2 in Monday’s Charlottesville Super Regional finale, Szefc said this group of Cavaliers is the best team he’s seen in the 13 years since.
“Every guy in their lineup is dangerous,” Szefc said. “It’s the kind of team like that Stanford team I talked about, they make you claw your way through 27 outs, there’s no easy outs in that lineup . . . It’s a monster. That is an absolute college baseball monster right there.”
That Stanford team Szefc lauded did not win the national championship, however. Neither did the 2004 Rice team that featured three of the top eight picks in the draft, or the 2007 Vanderbilt team with David Price and Pedro Alvarez, or the 2011-12 Florida teams loaded with elite talent—or the 2011 Virginia team that earned the No. 1 national seed and reached the College World Series. The best team usually doesn’t win the national championship; the hottest team does.
In 2014, Virginia is the best team in college baseball, and it has ably handled the burden of being preseason No. 1. The Cavs also happen to be playing their best baseball at the perfect time. That doesn’t always happen for the best team; last year’s preseason No. 1, North Carolina, earned the No. 1 national seed during the season but was clearly not performing at peak capacity in regionals and super regionals, and it willed itself to Omaha anyway. But it did not win the title.
But when the best team is also playing its best baseball in June, betting against it might be unwise.
“I’m just so proud of this team because I think they handled the expectations prior to the season about as good as any club can,” UVa. coach Brian O’Connor said. “In this ballgame, certainly our offensive output was outstanding. Much was made of our offensive ballclub before this season started. There were some games where it didn’t go so well and it wasn’t easy, and we won a lot of close ballgames. Certainly the last two weeks, this offensive team showed what it was capable of doing.”
After pounding out 17 hits in Sunday’s 7-3 win, the Cavaliers rode a wave of confidence into Monday’s game and jumped out to an early lead they would not relinquish. Kenny Towns—an unsung stalwart in Virginia’s star-laden junior class—smacked a two-run triple off the left-field wall to cap a three-run first inning, and Towns capped another three-run rally in the third with a two-run single up the middle. That made it 6-0, and Maryland never really threatened after that against Josh Sborz.
A big-bodied sophomore righthander with a huge arm, Sborz spent most of the season in Virginia’s weekend rotation but had a tendency to battle control problems at times, and he was replaced in the rotation by Artie Lewicki down the stretch. The Cavs used Lewicki for 3 1/3 innings of relief to nail down Sunday’s victory, so Sborz made his first start since May 10 in Monday’s do-or-die game against Maryland.
He responded by holding Maryland scoreless on four hits and three walks over seven innings, striking out nine. He walked two in the first inning, but escaped trouble with a double play, then settled into a dominant groove.
“I mean, that guy’s a No. 1 for most other people,” Szefc said. “So we ran into what very well could be the national champion, at home in their park, on just not a very good night for us . . . Really the story of that game is Sborz, in my opinion. That guy was unbelievable. He’s as good an arm as we’ve faced all year, and we ran into him on the wrong night.”
With a 92-96 fastball and a vicious hard slider at 86-88, Sborz looked simply overpowering. A confident Sborz gives Virginia one more weapon heading into the CWS, giving this group of Cavaliers a real chance to do something that 2011 UVa. team could not: end the ACC’s national championship drought, now in its 59th year.
“This is as good as the 2011 team,” O’Connor said. “There are areas that I think this team is better than the 2011 team. The athleticism and depth of our lineup is really special. You think about this weekend we started three sophomores in our rotation. You’ve got a guy that’s a first-round pick for you at the end of the game (Nick Howard) . . . I think the quality and depth of our pitching is the best it’s been, and again that lineup 1-9 is pretty special. I think it could be the best, but we’ll make that final decision in about two weeks.
“I think this is a team that is built to win in Omaha, and I think they understand what it takes to be very successful there . . . I think in all phases of the game, this team is pretty special. I’m excited to see them go out to Omaha and compete for a national championship.”