CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—It seemed like only a matter of time before Virginia got rewarded for all the balls it hit hard in Saturday’s loss to Maryland. The Cavaliers left 14 runners on base in that 5-4 loss, but they squared up a number of hard outs right at Maryland defenders, and UVa. coach Brian O’Connor calmly said after the game that he liked his team’s offensive approach, despite the results.
Of course, all season long it has seemed like only a matter of time before Virginia’s offense started blowing out opponents regularly. With a lineup that features four preseason All-Americans—including a pair of top-40 overall draft picks (Derek Fisher and Mike Papi) and two seventh-rounders (Brandon Downes and Branden Cogswell)—and superb depth from top to bottom, Virginia looks like a team that should be among the nation’s highest-scoring teams, not a team that ranks 89th nationally in scoring, 92nd in batting and 90th in slugging.
But Sunday, the Cavaliers carried over their quality offensive approach from Saturday, and they showed a glimpse of just how dangerous they can be when their bats are locked in. Virginia pounded out 17 hits, tied for its second-most this season, and beat Maryland 7-3 to force a decisive third game of the Charlottesville Super Regional.
O’Connor believes in his hitters for good reason—they might be college baseball’s most talented group—and after Saturday’s loss he told them he was confident they would find holes in Maryland’s defense Sunday, even against another formidable starting pitcher, Mike Shawaryn.
“I shared with them that I really, really believe that we were going to come out today successful and on top,” O’Connor said. “There’s a lot of anxiety this time of year, I think that’s natural, human nature. But I personally was as calm today as I ever have been at this time of year, and that was because I know what these guys are made of and how talented we are. You’ve got to beat us, because what we’ve got coming to the table is pretty good.”
Those four preseason All-Americans did their part Saturday, combining for nine hits and four RBIs. Papi has been a menace in the first two games of the super regional, going 6-for-8 with two walks, making him 11-for-20 in the NCAA tournament. There is no tougher out in college baseball, and he did not deviate from his disciplined approach Sunday with Virginia’s season on the line.
“Our coaching staff had so much calmness and confidence in us today coming into the game,” Papi said. “They were so confident in us, and with that, we were able to stay relaxed and keep with our approach. Being experienced players, we knew there was a lot on the line and this could possibly be our last game, so we were going to leave it all on the field.”
Virginia’s offense also has a different look when Downes is playing at peak capacity. The junior center fielder was an electrifying player in 2013, hitting .316/.393/.569 with 10 homers, 20 doubles and seven triples. But a lingering wrist injury hampered his performance this spring, and he entered this weekend hitting just .218/.326/.365 with 15 extra-base hits on the season. He has looked like his old self in two games against Maryland, ripping two doubles to left field Saturday and singling twice Sunday, including an RBI single to cap Virginia’s crucial three-run seventh inning. Downes is a force to be reckoned with hitting in the No. 8 hole, right behind a pair of hot hitters in Kenny Towns and John La Prise.
“I’ve felt the last few weeks that Brandon Downes was taking more consistent passes at the baseball, he was barreling it up more,” O’Connor said. “Downes is swinging the bat now like he was last year. I’ve given some consideration, do I move him around in the order based on his production? But I’m really proud of him. Dealing with the injuries he’s had this year, dealing with the inconsistencies, the fact that he’s performing as well as he has since the beginning of the season really says something about what he’s made of.”
The Cavaliers stranded 13 more runners Sunday, so their offense is still not running at peak efficiency. Nonetheless, they look scary heading into Monday’s winner-goes-to-Omaha showdown. Neither coach announced his Monday starter after the game; the Cavs used expected No. 3 starter Artie Lewicki for 3 1/3 strong innings of relief to nail down the victory for Brandon Waddell (5.2 IP, 7 H, 1 ER). Virginia announced later Sunday that it will start Josh Sborz on Monday, and it figures to feature closer Nick Howard for a few innings later in the game, since Howard has yet to pitch in the series.
Shawaryn battled through six innings despite giving up 12 hits for Maryland, helping keep the bullpen fresh. Expect to see a whole-staff effort from the Terrapins on Monday. They surely know it won’t be easy to slow down Virginia’s offense.
“They have really good players,” Terps coach John Szefc said. “I mean, their guys are good. They’re clearly the best team we’ve played all year, as far as their raw talent and the way they’re coached. You have to play very, very clean to beat them. If you look at the two wins we have against them this year, they were both one-run games. They’ll take you to the end. That’s why they have all the accolades and rankings this year, because they do things the right way and they have good players.”