CHARLOTTESVILLE — For all of Virginia baseball's relentless, regular-season excellence, and for all of the Cavaliers' dominance in last week's NCAA regional, this moment was inevitable: tournament pressure of the highest order.
No team is immune. No club waltzes to the College World Series or national championship. Division I baseball is too balanced, and the sport's gods are too fiendish.
So while Virginia never lost consecutive games during the regular season, and while the Cavaliers won three NCAA regional games by a combined 22-3, a reckoning loomed.
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Davenport Field, Charlottesville, VA
And here it is: Win two straight or call it a season. And not only that. Win two straight against an upstart that seems oblivious to opponents' pedigrees and its own grim past.
Maryland defeated Virginia 5-4 Saturday to open a best-of-three super regional at Davenport Field. The lone top-five seed remaining in the 64-team bracket, the Cavaliers must defeat the Terps in Games 2 and 3 to reach the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the third time in six seasons.
If not, a year that began with Virginia atop the national polls and Maryland, as usual, nowhere in sight, will steer the Terps to their first CWS and the Cavaliers into an offseason of regret.
"We've got plenty of pitching to do this thing," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said.
Indeed, pitching has been the Cavaliers' trump — their 2.29 ERA tops the ACC — this season. But not Saturday.
The Terps roughed up ace Nathan Kirby for five runs, all earned, and seven hits in 4.2 innings, the sophomore left-hander's shortest and worst outing this year. The setback was Kirby's second in 11 decisions and first since March 22 at Miami.
Virginia had ample opportunities to rescue Kirby but left 14 runners on base and ran itself into a brain-cramp double play in the first inning.
First baseman Mike Papi, a two-time, first-team All-ACC selection, was on third base with one out when Kenny Towns drove a ball toward center field. Charlie White made a diving catch, and Papi should have tagged up and scored routinely, but fearing he had left the bag too early, he re-tagged and was thrown out at home by shortstop Blake Schmit's relay to catcher Kevin Martir.
"That could have turned into a nightmare of an inning," said Maryland starter Jake Stinnett, who labored through 117 pitches and six innings to earn the victory.
"I think it's come to a point where our guys are so confident and playing so loose, that they just expect to make those plays," Terps coach John Szefc said.
But an 8-6-2, inning-ending double play? That's when you know you're living large.
And the Terps are living XXXL. Previously 1-6 all-time in the NCAA tournament, and absent from the field since 1971, they are 4-0 this year.
In the regionals, Maryland bested host South Carolina twice in two days, snapping the Gamecocks' 28-game tournament winning streak at home. Saturday the Terps handed the Cavaliers only their fourth loss in 36 home contests this season.
Virginia's most credible late threat came in the eighth, when Papi, 3-for-3 on the afternoon, laced a two-out, RBI single to right-center, trimming the deficit to 5-4 and moving Daniel Pinero to third. But clean-up hitter Joe McCarthy's loud liner to right was directly at Anthony Papio.
The Cavaliers (47-14) turn now to another sophomore southpaw, Brandon Waddell. The team's Friday-night ace as a rookie in 2013, Waddell is 8-3 with a 2.73 ERA and fresh off a regional victory against Arkansas. He was 1-1 in the NCAA tournament last year.
Maryland will counter with freshman right-hander Mike Shawaryn (11-3, 2.81 ERA). Like Stinnett, he is 6-foot-4 and durable, witness his 111-pitch outing last weekend against two-time national champion South Carolina.
The Terps (40-21) were 3-27 against the Cavaliers from 2004-13. They are 2-0 this season, the initial victory 7-6 in the ACC tournament. Moreover, Maryland is 8-1 in one-run games, 6-0 in such contests in the past five weeks.
"Looking at Maryland's approach in the batter's box and their approach defensively and on the mound, it seems like there is a calm confidence to them," O'Connor said.
Virginia needs to shatter that calm, quickly and forcefully.
Teel can be reached by phone at 757-247-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.