With a season of vast promise delicately hanging in the balance, Virginia flashed its No. 1 status in full force for the first time in the 2011 College World Series Thursday night, rolling to an 8-1 victory against upstart California in an elimination game.
The Cavaliers racked up 11 hits, got a sterling performance from senior pitcher Tyler Wilson and served notice to the remaining CWS field – South Carolina in particular – that they’ve arrived at the party.
Better late than never.
Virginia (56-11) and the Gamecocks (52-14) square off at 6 p.m. Friday in the semifinal round, a rematch from Tuesday when the Cavaliers never posed much of a threat in a 7-1 loss to USC.
The UVa team that showed up Thursday was a completely different animal.
For the first time in three games at TD Ameritrade Park, the Cavaliers delivered the kind of complete performance expected from the No. 1 seed.
There was effective execution in a two-run third inning, paired with the ability to seize advantage of some Bears’ mistakes. After a misplayed ground ball to Cal’s first hitter of the night, Virginia’s defense was rock-solid.
And perhaps most impressively, Virginia played with the kind of killer instinct the three other teams in the semifinals have already shown.
“I thought that we played a really good baseball game overall,” Cavs coach Brian O’Connor said.
“Tyler Wilson was just spectacular (Thursday). All year long, whenever we’ve needed a great outing after a difficult loss, he’s responded every time for his team. He was the right guy to give the ball to (Thursday) for sure. He went out there and charged the mound and gave us everything he had.”
Indeed, Wilson was the ringleader, as he limited the feisty Bears (38-23) to just five hits and blazed through seven scoreless innings, mowing down 17 of 18 hitters in one stretch, with very few well-struck balls.
Cal got a base runner to second base with two outs in the first inning when Chadd Krist rammed a double left-center field – right after Austin Booker had second base stolen but was tagged out when he over-slid the bag.
That was the biggest threat the Bears mustered against Wilson until the eighth inning, though. He mixed pitches well, consistently jumped ahead in counts and lured Cal’s hitters into chasing pitcher’s pitches.
“The Cal players were aggressive very early in the count pretty much all game long,” Wilson said after improving to 10-0 with his second win of this CWS.
“I knew it was going to be important coming in to establish my fastball command in and out of the zone and even be able to pitch up in the zone and get up under their hands if necessary.”
Added Bears DH Tony Renda, “He kept us off-balance to the point where we were popping a lot of balls up, which is uncharacteristic of our team. … A guy like him, you’ve just got to take advantage of his mistakes and he didn’t make too many.”
With Wilson firmly in control, the Cavaliers popped in front early for the first time in the CWS, getting to Bears’ starter Dixon Anderson for a pair of runs in the third inning when he was his own worst enemy.
UVa first baseman Jared King whistled a wicked liner through the box to begin the inning and scooted to second base when Keith Werman dropped down a perfect bunt that died 15 feet from the plate slightly right of the mound.
Anderson grabbed the ball but in plenty of time, but his hurried throw pulled Devon Rodriguez off the first-base bag for an error that let Werman reach.
That was a harbinger for the rest of the night as the Bears committed three errors that led to three unearned runs. Another run came home on a wild pitch.
“They make you play so well to beat them,” Cal coach David Esquer said.
“They do so many things fundamentally well, they make it tough for you to beat (them). You have to play an almost flawless game and you’ve got to be on your game to beat them and (Thursday) we weren’t.”
Following Anderson’s door-opening errant throw, UVa leadoff man Chris Taylor put down another bunt that Rodriguez pounced on and had a play at second, but he hesitated slightly enough and his only throw was to first base to get Taylor.
With runners on second and third and John Barr at the plate, Anderson bounced a curve ball that caromed past Chadd Krist to send King darting home. Barr tagged a full-count pitch to left field for a sacrifice fly and 2-0 advantage for the Cavaliers.
Any thoughts Cal had of keeping the game close evaporated in the sixth inning when Virginia racked up four runs with the offense coming to life.
After Bears reliever Kevin Miller struck out Danny Hultzen to start the frame, Kenny Swab zapped a sinking liner into center field that Darrel Matthews charged and tried to short-hop. But the ball glanced off his glove and squirted all the way to the fence with Swab rambling all the way around.
The play was ruled a single and a three-base error, but even had Matthews fielded the ball cleanly, he only would’ve delayed the inevitable.
David Coleman laced a double into the left-field corner, Werman punched a two-out RBI single to left field, Taylor uncorked another double to left-center field to plate Werman and Barr capped the outburst when he punched a hit to left field to extend the lead to 6-0.
All nine Virginia starters had a hit and seven scored at least one run. In a 7-1 loss to South Carolina two nights earlier, the Cavaliers scrounged up only five hits and two double plays – one a 1-2-3 dagger with the bases loaded – derailed any chance for momentum.
“We just needed to go out there and battle,” said Werman, who had two hits and two sacrifice bunts, “(Thursday), all nine of us came through at some point in the game and that’s what we needed.”
With the six-run cushion, the rest of the night belonged to Wilson.
Booker, Cal’s leadoff hitter, snapped a string of 11 straight hitters retired when he whipped a one-out single to center in the sixth. Unfazed, Wilson barreled through the heart of the Bears’ order by getting four weak popups and a routine grounder to third baseman Steven Proscia.
After Matthews dropped in a one-out base hit in the eighth and Booker rifled a two-out hit to left, O’Connor lifted Wilson.
“I approached this game the same way I’ve approached every one of my starts all season long and that’s what it’s going to take for all of us to continue to be successful is to play the same way we’ve played all year to get us to this point of the season,” Wilson said.
“It’s the College World Series. How could you not pitch with adrenalin every time you step out there on the mound?”
Added O’Connor, “This guy is as good as leader as I’ve ever seen. Not only does he perform on the field – and he’s talented – he does things the right way.
“I think the guy is a warrior out there, a tremendous leader.”
With the semifinal matchup set, Virginia is likely to start junior left-hander Danny Hultzen (12-3, 1.41 ERA, 157 strikeouts) against South Carolina, setting up a dazzling battle of talented southpaws.
Gamecocks’ lefty Michael Roth (13-3, 0.97, 103), their likely starter, shook off a rocky opening act against Texas A&M in the first round and logged 7.2 strong innings with eight strikeouts and only four hits allowed.