Cal Looks To Continue To Defy Odds Versus UVa

OMAHA, Neb. – The Cal-Virginia showdown at the College World Series is a classic underdog-versus-favorite match-up. Randy Rosetta previews the match-up.

There's not much mystery about which team is David at this year's College World Series.

Virginia just hopes to show that Goliath can play a little baseball, too.

The No. 1-seeded Cavaliers (54-10) get the second day of the 2011 CWS started at 1 p.m. Sunday when they tangle with California (37-21), the one major surprise team in the tournament field.

Under normal circumstances, Virginia's heart-stopping rally in the Super Regional round to reach the CWS might be among the hottest topics.

But Cal's unpredictable run to Omaha – in the wake of everything else the Bears have been through this spring – trumps just about every other storyline.

Before the season ever got off the ground, the administration at California announced the intention to disband the baseball program despite a rich history that includes winning the inaugural CWS championship in 1947.

With the plan set to launch, a group of alumni raised $9.6 million to keep the program afloat for now and for the immediate future.

Given a reprieve, the Bears battled through a season that had plenty of ups and downs to finish 13-13 in the Pac-10 and claim a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Once there, Cal (37-21) promptly lost its NCAA opener to Baylor, but true to their season-long tenacity, the Bears stormed back to win the regional by beating national seed Rice and then Baylor twice.

Cal wound up with a Super Regional in the Bay Area and downed Dallas Baptist in two games to punch the unlikeliest ticket to Omaha.

Bears coach Dave Esquer is a former Stanford player and assistant coach who made a handful of trips to the CWS with the Cardinal. But he hasn't hidden his enthusiasm this week about bringing this team here, especially with the circumstances hovering over the program all season.

"I've been blessed to have been here as a player and as an assistant coach, but it's even more special to come here, to bring your own team into Omaha," Esquer said.

Blessed or charmed weren't words that Virginia (54-10) might've thought it would need to get to Omaha when the NCAA Tournament began. But the Cavaliers needed a major jolt of unlikely to keep their season alive and kicking.

In a decisive third game in the Super Regional round, UVa went to the ninth inning against UC Irvine in a 1-1 deadlock. The Anteaters generated a run when shortstop Chris Taylor couldn't handle a throw on a bunt, opening the door for the go-ahead run.

Taylor was an emotional wreck in the dugout between innings and got a pep talk from Cavs' coach Brian O'Connor, who was born and raised in the Omaha area.

O'Connor's message? "Who knows? Maybe you'll have a chance to make a difference," O'Connor said, recounting his chat with Taylor.

"When you're a competitor and winner like this kid is, and you feel like you could have made a catch and you don't make it, maybe you start to get the feeling a bit that maybe you cost your club a chance to come to Omaha." Taylor got his chance.

With Virginia down to its final strike and nobody on base, the Cavaliers found life and eventually Taylor came to the plate with the bases loaded and punched a two-run single through the middle to spark a scintillating 3-2 victory.

"We battled and found a way," said Virginia infielder Keith Werman, one of 10 Cavaliers who was on the 2009 team that got to Omaha for the first time in program history. "It gives us some momentum coming in, but whoever we play is also going to be on their toes when they play us no matter what the situation is.

Added pitcher Will Roberts, "Our motto the whole year has been ‘Get 27 outs.' (UC Irvine) got 26 and we made sure we did what we had to do to keep our season going."

Not only are the Cavs still playing, they arrived at the CWS as one of the favorites.

Paced by junior pitcher/first baseman Danny Hultzen (12-3, 1.49 ERA, 151 strikeouts), the No. 2 pick in the recent MLB Draft, Virginia leads the country in ERA (2.26) and strikeouts per nine innings (9.8).

Virginia is hitting .306 as a team and averaging just over 7 runs a game, led by John Hicks (.340) and Steven Proscia (.335).

Cal counters with a team anchored by Pac-10 Player of the Year Tony Renda (.335, 14 2B, 42 RBI), Austin Booker (.319) and Chadd Krist (.304, 25 2B, 43 RBI). The Bears feature a balanced pitching staff with junior Erik Johnson (7-4, 2.91 ERA, 100 SO) and sophomore Justin Jones (9-6, 2.93, 81 SO) as the centerpieces. Jones is battling a sore biceps injury and might not be available for the CWS.

Regardless of who plays for the Bears, there's little doubt they enter the series as the underdog – David to Virginia's Goliath.

And that's just fine with Esquer.

"It's a tremendous challenge for us, but any team here that you play is going to be a tremendous challenge," he said. You don't duck anybody. There is no easy road, no lighter schedule, to winning a championship.

"But hey, the challenge of playing the No. 1 seed and the top-rated team in the country, if you don't get to leave the tournament without playing the best, you may have missed something. So that's good for us."

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