CWS Game Three: Virginia 4, Cal 1

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The Golden Bears made Virginia ace Danny Hultzen labor in a 28-pitch first inning, but he escaped the frame unscathed and soon settled in. Once Hultzen found his groove—he retired six straight batters starting in the third inning, three of them via strikeouts—it seemed like Virginia was in control, and it was only a matter of time before the Cavs broke the scoreless tie.

Virginia second baseman Keith Werman entered
Sunday hitting just .210/.358/.237 in 186 at-bats, but he still carried
a reputation for getting bit hits into Omaha. He got two of them
Sunday, sparking UVa.’s two-run seventh with a leadoff single up the
middle and then scoring on John Hicks’ RBI single to break a scoreless
tie. Werman followed with an RBI single in the eighth to extend the
lead to 4-0. “Probably one of the hardest things about this game is
you’re going to fail,” Werman said. “And it’s a matter of being able to
stay positive every time. You still go up to the plate and clear out
what happened, that’s the biggest thing.”

Might Have Missed:
Virginia closer Branden Kline tied an ACC record with his 18th save of the season, one behind the national lead. Kline faced just one batter in the ninth but got Darrel Matthews to pop out to third base for the final out.

OMAHA—The first three games of the 2011 College World Series have had a similar feel. The underdogs have hung around early while the favorites have struggled to cash in on scoring chances in the first few innings. But eventually, the favorites have broken through, taken leads in the middle innings, extended leads late, and preserved those leads with lights-out bullpen work.

Virginia’s 4-1 win against California on Sunday followed the same pattern of wins Saturday by Vanderbilt and Florida. The Cavaliers drew five walks in three-plus innings against Cal starter Erik Johnson, but they failed to convert with runners in scoring position in each of the first five innings. Meanwhile, the Golden Bears drove up ace Danny Hultzen’s pitch count in the first two innings but also failed to score.

Hultzen settled into a groove eventually, as he is wont to do. He departed a scoreless game in the seventh inning, and Virginia RBI machines John Hicks and Steven Proscia drove in the game’s first two runs in the bottom of the frame. The next inning, the Cavs stepped on Cal’s throat, as Jared King hit an RBI triple and scored on Keith Werman’s RBI single.

“It’s about putting guys in position and winning the big spot,” Cal coach David Esquer said. “That’s the way it’s been all year long, and Virginia did a great job of that. They’re tough with two strikes. I thought they had a good offensive plan. They dropped some hits in there that a lot of people don’t think are pretty hits, but the people who know, know those are hitters’ hits. To fight the ball the other way and drop those in, that’s good hitting. Especially deep in the count, they do a good job of that.”

There are a lot of reasons Virginia is 55-10 this season. No team has been better at run prevention, and the Cavs just missed extending their national-best shutout total to 17, as Cal pushed across a run in the ninth. But Virginia’s relentless offensive approach is another huge reason for the team’s remarkable consistency. The Cavs don’t panic if they leave runners on base early. They just grind their opponents down and win games late.

“You know, the way that the game went today, it’s happened that way quite a bit this year,” UVa. coach Brian O’Connor said. “Our hitters, (one) time through, have figured out what they’re trying to do to us and are able to make an adjustment from an offensive standpoint . . . We’ve been a team that really all year has kind of grinded it out offensively, and I think a pitcher can get very frustrated sometimes with our offensive approach. Nobody gives in; they’re going to continue to foul balls off and put up a quality at-bat.”

Hultzen doesn’t give in, either. After allowing two walks but striking out the side in a 28-pitch first inning, Hultzen regrouped and became much more efficient in the middle innings. His big, hard slider helped him get swings-and-misses when he needed them, and he finished with six strikeouts over 6 1/3 scoreless frames, allowing just three hits and three walks.

“After that first inning, after a couple of walks, couple of 10-pitch at-bats, I was kind of like, ‘This could be a long day,’ ” Hultzen said. “But once we got that third out, I settled down, got those butterflies out of (my) stomach. Just after that first inning, got to get those nerves out, but after that I settled down a little bit.”

With the score still tied, O’Connor decided to follow Hultzen with senior righthander Tyler Wilson, UVa.’s usual No. 2 starter. Wilson made 60 relief appearances over the previous two seasons, and his rubber arm could be invaluable in a moment-of-truth relief role in Omaha. He allowed a run on three hits and no walks over 2 1/3 innings Sunday.

“Tyler and I had a conversation two days ago, and I told him what my game plan was—that if we had an opportunity to win in the back half of the game that I was going to use him out of our bullpen,” O’Connor said. “And then potentially start him in Game Three. We have that luxury, because he pitched (31) games for us out of our pen last year, and he understands what that’s about.

“And fortunately we have some really good depth from a starting pitching standpoint, and it does allow us to do that. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have confidence in our bullpen. But I just felt like it was the right thing to do, and we’re in this thing to win it. Fortunately it worked out.”