Monday, June 01, 2009

Go Hoos!

For the first time in its previously far-from-illustrious history, the Virginia baseball team has moved past the regional round. Congratulations to the Cavs.

When The Monk and his friend Luskerdu were at Virginia, the team struggled to maintain a .500 overall record and never even sniffed the NCAA Tournament, which at that time had 48 teams split into eight 6-team regionals with the regional winners advancing to the College World Series. After we graduated (and I think there's documentary proof that Luskerdu did graduate), the Cavaliers caught lightning in a bottle for a year in 1996 led by the quite mortal Seth Greisinger, who played in the majors for the Tigers, Twins, and Braves (he was a first-round pick, he flopped) before going to Japan.

In 2003, the 23-year coaching term of Dennis Womack ended and Virginia hired Brian O'Connor, a Creighton grad who played in the College World Series, coached for his alma mater, then gained national recognition as an assistant at Notre Dame. Since hiring O'Connor, Virginia has been a top-flight baseball program: five 40+ win seasons in his six years, six straight NCAA Tournament appearances (compared to three in Virginia history before O'Connor arrived), an ACC championship and constant success in the ACC -- one of the better baseball conferences in the country considering its plethora of national powers (UNC, Clemson, Ga. Tech, Florida State, Miami).

O'Connor was a pitcher and his knowledge of pitching has been the key to Virginia's baseball success. The Cavs play at the cavernous Davenport Field and consistently have one of the better pitching staffs in college baseball. And it's not just at home -- the Cavs rarely play those 17-15 aluminum bat-aided slugfests (or 37-6 slugfests -- see the beating FSU put on Ohio State) on the road either, even in Atlanta or Chapel Hill or Miami.

The NCAA Tournament now has 64 teams split into 16 regionals with teams seeded 1-4 and eight teams seeded as overall Nos. 1-8 (like seeded players in tennis). The winner of the double-elimination regional goes to a Super-Regional to play a best of three series against another regional winner. The Super-Regional winner goes to the College World Series.

Two years ago, Virginia was up 3-1 and six outs away from its first-ever trip beyond the regional round against defending champion Oregon State. The Cavs threw away that game (four errors) and lost the rematch; Oregon State didn't lose again on its way to another national title.

This year, the Cavs got a complete screw-job from the NCAA Tournament committee. After winning the ACC Tournament (beating UNC, Clemson and Florida State in the process, all of whom received #1 seeds), Virginia's RPI was #6 and its national ranking was #7 or #11 (depending upon the poll). Instead of hosting a regional as a #1 seed, the Committee sent the Cavs across the country to Irvine to the regional with the No. 6 overall seed (UC-Irvine), the best pitcher in college baseball (San Diego State's Stephen Strasburg -- the upcoming No. 1 pick in the baseball draft who throws 98-102 mph with a fantastic curve and slider), and the defending NCAA champ, Fresno State. If the NCAA does the snake-seeding method of the basketball committee, UVa was rated as the No. 27 team in the country. A ridiculous notion.

And yet . . . the team turned that chickens**t seeding into chicken salad. The Cavs took batting practice from 40 feet against pitching machines at top speed to prepare for Strasburg, flew out to Irvine without much talk of their bad draw, and performed. They touched Strasburg (ERA 1.24) for two runs and outpitched SDSU in their first game, 5-1. They shut down Irvine on Saturday 5-0. Last night, the Cavs again stifled Irvine on its home field -- a 4-1 win that sends Virginia to its first-ever Super Regional to play the winner of tonight's Mississippi-Western Kentucky game.

Congratulations to the Cavs. You're moving near the big stage now.

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