The past eight days have been a test in perseverance for the No. 8 Virginia baseball team, and Wednesday, in the midst of the most trying stretch of the 2013 season to date, the Cavaliers passed that test with flying colors.
Sophomore outfielder Mike Papi hit a game-tying grand slam in the bottom of the seventh inning and redshirt senior first baseman Jared King came through with a walk-off hit in the 10th, leading Virginia (32-6, 13-5 ACC) to a whirlwind 10-9 win against Old Dominion (18-18, 8-10 CAA).
In a game that featured six errors, three successful pickoffs and numerous plays that made the official scorekeeper’s job a nightmare, it was the resolve of the home team that made the difference.
“I’ve told this team many times this year that they have a really great quality about them and that is they never stop fighting,” coach Brian O’Connor said. “They never stop competing, they feel like they can always do something to try to win a ballgame and tonight’s another example that our guys don’t get down.”
Virginia rallied from deficits of 7-2 and 9-8 for perhaps their most dramatic home win this season. With another frustrating night growing darker by the minute and the prospect of a second consecutive midweek loss looming, Papi stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh. He drilled his second clutch grand slam of the season to right field to tie the score at 8-8, a moment reminiscent of his go-ahead grand slam on the road against Wake Forest April 6 with two outs in the ninth.
“It’s really a special quality that obviously Mike has shown,” O’Connor said. “Championship players want to be in those scenarios. Whether he hits a homerun or not, the fact that he barrels the ball up and gives us a quality at bat, that’s what you want.”
Old Dominion once again grabbed the lead with a run in the eighth, but the Cavaliers responded swiftly and in bizarre fashion. In a play that resembled a Little League game rather than an intense college baseball contest, Virginia evened the score at nine in the bottom half of the inning.
With runners on first and second, freshman outfielder Joe McCarthy hit a grounder to second. The throw to Monarch junior shortstop Tyler Urps beat the runner, but Urps dropped the ball. Cavalier sophomore catcher Nate Irving noticed the ball trickling away and bolted for home. The throw beat Irving to the plate, but his slide jarred the ball loose and once again tied the score.
“I think we just keep battling for 27 outs,” Papi said. “We never give up. That’s a good mentality to have as a team right now.”
The teams traded zeroes in the ninth before King came up with the game-winning hit in the 10th. After Monarch sidewinding junior reliever Brad Gero recorded two quick outs, sophomore shortstop Branden Cogswell’s double put the tying run on base. King lashed a first-pitch fastball to right field, and junior outfielder Ben Verlander — the younger brother of Tigers ace starter Justin — could not come up with the catch. Cogswell came around to score easily as a euphoric Cavalier dugout raced onto the field to celebrate yet another dramatic win.
“This team, there’s no quit in them,” King said. “I think that’s evident in all the big numbers we put up late in games over the last couple of weeks. I feel like when we got down, nobody was freaking out in the dugout, everybody was still confident and calm. That’s going to be a great quality to have as we progress on toward the end of the season.”
Adversity had been largely foreign for Virginia this season until last Wednesday’s shocking loss to Radford. Until that game, the Cavaliers had dropped just three of 33 contests and were quickly establishing themselves as one of the best teams in the nation. O’Connor was named Baseball America’s National Coach of the First Half and the team was beginning to draw comparisons to the 2011 squad that advanced to the College World Series.
Last night served as one more reminder that adversity is unavoidable in baseball. The Cavaliers were quiet at the plate, suspect in the field and unimposing on the mound in the first five and a half innings in front of 2,797 fans at Davenport Field. Before Papi’s heroics brought Virginia level, the Cavaliers appeared destined for their second consecutive midweek loss for the first time in O’Connor’s nine-year tenure. A defeat also would have been the team’s fourth in five games — more than the team had lost in its first 33 games.
“As far as the midweek games go, they all count,” O’Connor said. “We are not going to be perfect all the time … You lose some series and you lose at times. It’s about how you respond and how you bounce back.”
The stirring comeback comes at a critical time for Virginia with a matchup against powerhouse No. 6 Florida State (31-6, 13-5 ACC) this weekend in Charlottesville. The Seminoles are first in the Atlantic division standings and rank second in the ACC with a 2.60 ERA. O’Connor’s squad was swept last season in Tallahassee, but exacted a measure of revenge in the ACC Tournament by blanking then-No. 1 Florida State 7-0.