CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Unbeaten phenom Stephen Strasburg of San Diego State, widely touted as perhaps the best pitching prospect in college baseball history? Beaten.
Top-ranked UC-Irvine? Swept in two straight games on its home field.
Virginia’s “regional hump” in the NCAA baseball tournament, growing seemingly larger in each of the past five seasons as the Cavaliers failed to get past the first weekend? Gone.
For the first time in school history, the Cavaliers (46-12-1) are heading to the super regionals this weekend, playing a best-of-three series against host Ole Miss at Oxford. The winner gains a spot in the eight-team College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
“Confidence-wise we’re sky-high,” said sophomore Phil Gosselin, who delivered the calling-card shot against Strasburg to get a magical weekend going for Virginia last Friday night.
Gosselin said the hardest part is waiting until Friday to play again, but when they do, pitcher Andrew Carraway said the confidence gained by recent victories will come along.
“These teams that we’ve already played, there’s not going to be anything that we haven’t seen. No surprises,” Carraway said Tuesday as the Cavaliers returned to their own Davenport Field for a workout after a cross-country trip home from California on Monday night.
Besides, Carraway added, “we know what we can do as a team.”
They’ve shown everyone else by winning eight straight, including four in a row to take the Atlantic Coast Conference title, sealed with a victory against top-seeded Florida State. They then took the momentum to California in a 5-1 victory against the heralded Strasburg.
The stage and tone was set early when Cavaliers leadoff man Jarrett Parker made Strasburg throw seven or eight pitches before striking out on a 3-2 changeup. The at-bat gave Gosselin a good look at the righty’s stuff, and Gosselin hit the first pitch he saw for a home run.
“It just gave everybody a little confidence that we can hit this guy,” Gosselin said.
They managed only one more run in Strasburg’s seven innings and he struck out 15, but with Robert Morey going six shutout innings and the bullpen just as effective, Strasburg lost for the first time in 14 decisions this season, and Virginia had showed itself something.
“We got off the bus after the game thinking we just beat Stephen Straburg,” Carraway said. “It’s kind of been a running joke about how good he is. I mean, ‘Who can beat us now?’”
As it turned out, UC-Irvine couldn’t either as first Danny Hultzen (9-1) handcuffed the Anteaters over 7 1-3 innings in a 5-0 victory, and then Carraway (7-1) worked the first seven innings on Sunday, allowing just four hits as the Cavaliers advanced with a 4-1 victory.
Now, it’s on to Mississippi, where the homestanding Rebels (43-18) beat Western Kentucky 4-1 on Monday night to reach their fourth super regional in the past five seasons.
Each victory during the winning streak has come away from Charlottesville, and coach Brian O’Connor said heading back out to play another powerhouse program is just fine with him.
“I think it’s good that we’re going on the road,” said O’Connor, who has led the Cavaliers into the postseason in each of his six seasons as coach. “I think they’ve had the attitude all year that they have something to prove, and I think they are comfortable away from here.
“I don’t think that there is anything that they are going to back down from.”
For Ole Miss, Virginia feels the pressure is on just like it was on UC-Irvine to advance at home as the host, while the Cavaliers will arrive as an underdog on a roll.
“We’re playing our best baseball at the most important time of the year and our confidence is at all all-time high,” O’Connor said. “And it’s not misplaced confidence because of what we gained coming out of the ACC tournament, and what we gained coming out of Irvine.”
Virginia catcher Franco Valdes Jr., who guided a pitching staff that allowed just two runs in three games, and went 5-for-11 to be named the most outstanding player of the Irvine regional, said each success makes the Cavaliers want to experience the next one even more.
“Hopefully every step coming will feel better and better,” he said.
Hank Kurz Jr./The Associated Press