There are just two ACC teams left in the NCAA baseball tournament — well, sort of, anyway.
Virginia, the No. 3 overall seed and one of just three national seeds remaining, has advanced to the Super Regional round for the fifth time in six seasons. This is old hat to them, and they’re carrying the torch for the league since Maryland — which is in its first Super Regional since 1971 after upsetting South Carolina last weekend — is departing for the Big 10 next season. This could be Maryland’s final weekend as a representative of the league in any sport.
The ACC will technically claim them, as they should since they’re guaranteed to have at least one team in the College World Series either way. But it won’t feel the same if they advance instead of Virginia.
There is going to be plenty of fan animus directed at Maryland, who has arguably been Virginia’s principal ACC rival throughout their time together in the league. That’s not at all how Virginia is approaching it from a team perspective, though — understandably.
"I think that’s for you all to write about," UVa head coach Brian O’Connor said, according to Andrew Ramspacher of The Daily Progress. "Personally, and I know our players, there won’t be anything put into that, quite frankly. We’ve never played for revenge or other ancillary things that are outside what takes place on the field."
The Cavaliers didn’t play Maryland in the regular season, but they did face off in the ACC Tournament, where Maryland won 7-6 (and hit four home runs). That was out of character for the Cavaliers.
Virginia has played 20 one-run games this season and has gone 14-6 in those games, so the Cavaliers are plenty comfortable relying on their pitching and defense, which has rarely let them down. NewBridge Bank Park in Greensboro was a lot more of a home-run friendly park than Davenport Field will be, so that certainly works in the Cavaliers’ favor.
But Maryland has relied on its pitching plenty, too. All three of its starters have an ERA of 2.81 or better, and senior staff ace Jake Stinnett is expected to go early in the upcoming MLB Draft. The Maryland bullpen is a bit shakier, but the starters have been as good as it gets. When Maryland’s offense is clicking, the Terps can beat anyone — as they showed last weekend, going a perfect 3-0 in Columbia.
Stinnett, though, is the standout on a team of largely no-name or up-and-coming players. Virginia, in contrast, has several well-known names that will be drafted early in the coming days, and some steady contributors that may not get drafted but are a key part of the team’s success.
Virginia’s hitting hasn’t always been there this year, even on a club that was expected to be good offensively. But the Cavaliers’ offense is coming together at the right time, certainly. Virginia cruised through its Regional last weekend, going 3-0 and winning its three games by a combined score of 22-3.
Virginia’s bats are going to have to stay hot this weekend against a Maryland team that is opportunistic. The Terps might have gone 3-0 in Columbia, but they won their opener against Old Dominion only after back-to-back walk-off hit by pitches. They then squeaked by South Carolina 4-3 on Saturday before dominating the Gamecocks in Sunday’s game, 10-1.
The moral of the story is that if Virginia leaves the door open for Maryland, the Terps will gladly take advantage. The Terps are resilient and if they get hot — which they seem to be at the moment — they’re extremely dangerous.
And so the key might end up being Virginia closer Nick Howard, who should hear his name called in the first round tonight.
Howard has 19 saves this season and a 2.15 ERA in 27 appearances to go with 50 strikeouts — just eight fewer than starter Josh Sborz in nearly 35 fewer innings.
Baseball can be strange, and teams get hot (or cold) at different times. O’Connor certainly feels like his team is heating up, particularly offensively, at the right time.
"I say it all the time, this time of the year it’s about getting hot. It’s about who’s hot," O’Connor said to VirginiaSports.com. "It’s not necessarily the powerhouse team or [the team] who’s been there before. It’s a matter of who plays loose and gets after it, and who gets hot. And you can go on to win the national championship if you’re one of those teams that gets hot for four weeks."