Do or Die For Virginia Baseball Against Titans

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IJune 15, 2009

It's been an exciting road for Virginia fans over the past month now, but the journey may be nearing its conclusion.

Monday afternoon, the Virginia baseball team that has shocked the college baseball world puts its entire season on the line against the second-seeded Cal-State Fullerton Titans in the College World Series.

One team will live to fight another day, the other will be the first team eliminated in Omaha this season.

The Titans are clearly the more experienced team; they have their No. 1 pitcher waiting in the wings and they have four World Series titles to their credit.

Virginia is playing in its first College World series in the history of its program.

On the other hand, when it comes to overcoming adversity, Virginia is more than experienced this season.

The Virginia baseball team entered this season unranked and responded by reeling off 19 straight victories to open the season.

With a team laden with freshmen and sophomores, the Cavaliers came into the season with a chip on their shoulders and that mental toughness has served them well.

Virginia coach Brian O'Connor say something special in these kids. They were a true team, full of talent but devoid of ego. O'Connor would not let them settle for their predicted mediocrity and it earned him National Coach of the Year honors.

Still, victories were not so easy to come by when ACC play came around.

This young team had learn how to win the close games, a lesson that was not easily learned. Nine of Virginia's 14 losses this season have been by one run, including two demoralizing losses to Virginia Tech in the final series of the regular season. 

Virginia entered the ACC tournament as the sixth seed, nearly an afterthought behind the behemoths of North Carolina, Florida State and Clemson.

They would leave Durham, N.C. as the lowest seed to ever claim the ACC baseball crown.

After a huge one-run victory over Clemson in prime time, Virginia gained momentum and turned into the hottest team in the country.

The Cavaliers pounded fellow CWS contestant UNC in the next round, shelling pitching phenom Alex White for eight runs in just over two innings en route to an 11-1 mercy rule victory.

After an initial struggle against Duke, the Cavaliers rallied with a seven-run seventh to knock out the Blue Devils 11-7.

Virginia's undefeated run in their bracket led them to a big showdown against Florida State. The Cavaliers had been in the ACC final under O'Connor, but a timely hit by freshman John Hicks gave Virginia the go-ahead run in the ninth to break the 3-3 deadlock.

Cavalier closer Kevin Arico slammed the door with little drama and Virginia had it's first ACC baseball title since 1996.

The drama came after the historic Cavalier victory.

Despite three wins in four days against teams hosting regionals, the NCAA selection committee deemed to not only make the Cavaliers a two-seed but to send them across the country to play in what ESPN referred to as "The Region of Death."

Virginia was the only team to make a cross-country journey in the entire tournament and they were doing it for the second straight year.  If you add a No. 7 national ranking and a No. 6 RPI at the time, you could understand some frustration.

This made life easy for coach O'Connor.  As overplayed the "respect" card may be, you have to admit that it works.

Virginia didn't just survive the "Region of Death" they rose like Lazarus.

First the Cavaliers humbled pitching god Steven Strasburg 5-1, handing the No. 1 overall pick his only loss the entire year.  Phil Gosselin's homer in the bottom of the first was a statement heard round the baseball world and it clearly rattled the young Aztec team.

Then Virginia took out the UC-Irvine Anteaters twice, a team ranked No. 1 in most polls for over the past month.

Their reward?

A trip to Oxford, Miss., one of the toughest places to play in America.

Like the CWS, Virginia opened the Super Regionals with a disappointing loss.

Against LSU it was a story of missed opportunities, against Ole Miss it was a story of giving extra opportunities.

Two costly errors essentially handed the Rebels the first game.

Fortunately for Virginia, Ole Miss returned the favor on Saturday.

Just five outs away from their first CWS since the 1970s, a costly error by the Rebels allowed Virginia to tie it up and then take the lead to secure a 4-3 victory.

The Cavaliers were able to play looser then in the elimination game where the pressure got to Ole Miss and allowed Virginia to advance.

Long story short, Virginia has faced tough odds before.

Now the question becomes, has Virginia's miracle run come to an end?

That answer to that question will rely on the play of pitcher Robert Morey.

Morey's biggest moment this season came when he dueled Strasburg in the opening regional game.

While Strasburg had the high heat and more strikeouts, Morey had nine K's of his own and won the most important statistic of them all: the win.

In his last outing, and with Virginia's season on the line, Morey went five innings giving up three earned runs and issuing five walks.  It certainly was not perfect, but Morey also did a good job of getting out of jams. He found a way to get around batters with less than his best stuff.

After first inning jitters where Ole Miss knocked two runs on the board, Morey did not give up another hit the rest of the game. 

If Morey can improve his control, he will certainly have an opportunity to go deep into the game for the Cavaliers.  If he continues to walk batters, the Titans could make him pay.

A long outing is just what the Virginia bullpen has to be hoping for after the LSU offensive bonanza.

With Matt Packer and Tyler Wilson going a combined five innings on Saturday, the bullpen for Virginia will be undoubtedly thin on Monday.

If Morey struggles, you can bet Andrew Carraway will get the call.

The determined senior has had a great postseason so far, going 3.1 scoreless innings against Ole Miss after a seven inning performance against UC-Irvine to cement Virginia's first Super Regional in school history.

The Titans are a dangerous offensive team with a cadre of young and talented arms to throw at the Cavalier hitters. 

The road to a championship is invariably more difficult after an opening loss.  History dictates that it is almost impossible.

Virginia will certainly have it's work cut out for them, and that's exactly how they like it.


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