For 6½ innings, neither team put a dent in the scoreboard as gritty pitching and suffocating defense stole the show.
The top-seeded Cavaliers finally got a handful of timely hits in the final two innings to lurch to a 4-1 triumph and take a big step forward in their quest for a national championship.
It wasn’t easy, though, against a Bears’ team that has chewed adversity up and spat it out all season.
Virginia catcher John Hicks’ ice-breaking RBI single in the seventh inning finally got the Cavaliers started, third baseman Steven Proscia drove in another run with a fly ball and UVa revved up its bats for three more hits and two runs from the bottom of the batting order in the eighth to secure the victory.
Until those two timely two-run frames, the Cavaliers (55-10) whiffed on their first nine chances with runners in scoring position – two each in the second through fifth innings – as Cal pitchers Erik Johnson and Logan Scott weaved in and out of trouble with the help of a pair of double plays and a great catch by left fielder Austin Booker.
“Started to wonder there for a while,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said after his won its school-record 55th game. “We had a lot of missed opportunities that we didn’t capitalize on.
“I just knew if we hung in there and we continued to battle, our pitching would hold us in there, that we’d have a chance to win it late.”
Strangely enough, Cal coach Dave Esquer was thinking almost the exact same thing in the opposite dugout.
As one zero after another flashed up on the scoreboard, the feisty Bears’ confidence grew as they saw the game unfold into a scenario that suited their underdog mentality.
“We thought that we needed to keep the game close and then hopefully we would make them crack late,” Esquer said. “The opposite happened.”
Although Virginia pitcher Danny Hultzen scuffled early with a 28-pitch first inning and wandered in and out of the strike zone, the Bears (37-22) never seemed to find a comfort zone got hitting against him.
The No. 2 pick in the recent Major League Baseball Draft, Hultzen walked two and struck out three in the first inning, gave up a leadoff single to Mitch Delfino in the second and walked Booker to start the third inning before finally finding a groove.
After the walk to start the third, Hultzen retired 11 of the final 13 Bears he faced and never allowed a runner to get past second base. He exited after recording the first out of the seventh on his 113th pitch.
“It was tough,” Hultzen said after his third consecutive no-decision in CWS starts. “They had some really competitive hitters up there. The refused to take those big swing-and-misses and did a good job of battling with two strikes.”
Johnson had similar problems in the strike zone, walking five batters in his 3-inning stint. But Scott came in and kept the Cavs off-balance for the next three frames before finally running in trouble in the seventh.
Virginia nine-hole hitter Keith Werman laced an opposite-field single to left field to begin the seventh inning and Chris Taylor joined him on base on a walk.
Esquer lifted Scott for Matt Flemer, who got the first out when John Barr bunted both runners into scoring position. Hicks scorched the first pitch he saw through the middle to plate Werman and put runners on the corners for Proscia, who lofted an 0-and-2 pitch to right field to send Taylor scooting home and nudge the lead to 2-0.
“They dropped some hits in there that a lot of people don’t think are pretty hits, but the people who know – those are hitters’ hits,” Esquer said. “They got some big hits when they had to, and the sacrifice fly down two strikes and the guy was able to lift that ball to right field. That’s great situational hitting.”
Thanks to some noisier at-bats, the Cavaliers didn’t have to manufacture as much in the eighth.
Center fielder Kenny Swab started the at-bat with a single to right field and pinch-runner Mitchell Shifflett dashed to second on David Coleman’s bunt. Jared King fouled off three 2-2 pitches before pummeling a triple to right-center field that barely eluded Cal right fielder Chad Bunting’s glove and bumped the lead to 3-0.
King scored the fourth run when Werman, a .210 hitter when the game began, blooped a single just inside the left-field line.
With the four-run cushion, Tyler Wilson took the mound for the Cavs in the ninth and gave up a leadoff single to Marcus Semiens and Bunting’s two-out RBI hit. Branden Kline trotted in to get Darrel Matthews on a foul pop to third base for his 18th save, which ties a school and ACC single-season record. Wilson upped his record to 9-0.
The victory was the first series-opening victory in two tries for Virginia and propels the Cavaliers into a showdown vs. reigning national champion South Carolina (51-14) at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the second round.
Cal will face Texas A&M (47-21) at 1 p.m. Tuesday, another elimination game for the Bears, who won four straight do-or-die games in the Houston Regional.
“You know, I think we’ve got them right where we want ’em,” Esquer said, managing a smile. “From here on out, everybody is going to be coming off a loss and we’ll be coming off a win. I think that’s where we’re at our best, so we might as well go with that. At least that’s what I’m trying to convince our guys of.”