I was lucky enough to be invited to the final baseball game of the Virginia Super Regional against UC Irvine on June 13, my birthday. Being an ‘83 alum, I never pass up an opportunity to go to any game. So my cousin, Jim Ragsdale (Col ’96), my daughter and I entered Davenport Field not knowing we would see one of the greatest games in Virginia baseball history.
The place was rocking. You could sense that this game was going to be big, and that feeling grew as the game progressed. In the top of the ninth with the game tied at one run apiece (thanks to Kenny Swab’s sixth-inning home run), our closer, Branden Kline, was on the mound with runners on the corners and no outs. Everyone was on their feet.
A young teenager across the aisle from me, wearing an orange shirt emblazoned with “UVA Forever” on the front, said, “We’ve got to stuff that runner on third.”
An older guy behind him, who had taken off his UVA baseball cap and was hitting it against his leg, responded, “Get him in a run-down. They have to keep him from scoring.”
Kline delivered the pitch with Drew Hillman of UCI hitting a grounder right to Chris Taylor, our shortstop. It looked like Taylor didn’t pay any attention to the runner on third that was racing toward home. Taylor threw the ball to second baseman Keith Werman who cleanly stepped on the bag, turned and fired a rope to Jared King at first base for the double play. But the ”bang, bang” quickness of that was immediately followed by a collective gasp from the fans.
“Why did he do that?” the woman festooned in bright blaze orange behind me exclaimed. Her husband also vented his frustration, and the kids that were lined up along the front rail at the bottom of the stairs all put their heads in their hands and gave a synchronized groan.
I agreed with the decision to go for the double play. Get two sure outs when you know you still come to bat in the bottom of the inning. Coach Brian O’Connor and his players trusted their offense.
The Cavs finally got the third out, and it was our turn to bat. When the Anteaters started taking the field, we fans got into our white-knuckle state and waited for the Anteaters’ ace, Matt Summers, to take the mound.
My daughter Ryan, the eternal optimist, said, “We’ve got this. Danny is the next batter and Kenny is gonna hit another home run.”
Things didn’t turn out the way we wanted. Hultzen struck out. Mr. Clutch slipped. But the fans didn’t panic. We all knew that Kenny Swab was on a tear. After all, he had hit the game’s only home run. “Orange Lady” behind me yelled, “Smack it over the fence!” After the ringing in my ear stopped, I watched as Swab hit the ball in an easy bounce to first. Now there were two outs.
The crowd was stunned. The air had a sense of urgency to it. Orange Lady dejectedly said, “Aw. Now what do we do?”
I responded, “David Coleman will just have to get on base.”
The hat-banging guy across from me quickly pointed out, “He’s batting over .300, you know.”
The fans were quieter now, but as I scanned the faces I did not see the look of despair. This Cavalier team had the reputation of playing hard till the final out. During the season, we had seen the Hoos come from behind to win games at the last moment. The fans were hanging onto that.
Coleman stepped up to the plate. I saw the same look in his eyes that he had in the third game of the weekend series against Duke—confidence. He always looked focused on getting a hit. And he did just that. Coleman’s shot up the middle missed going between the legs of the UCI pitcher by inches. The hit turned Summers around on the mound. The expression on Coleman’s face had not changed. Now he had the look of someone determined to get to second base.
Jared King stepped up to the plate. He was hitless, so the fans felt it was his time. You could feel the excitement rev back up in the crowd. Coleman had relit that Cavalier spark, and it was flowing through the stands.
An interesting situation was developing in the on-deck circle. Werman was standing in the back of the circle. O’Connor had his ear, and Werman was listening intently.
I said to Jim, “Keith’s a decoy. O’Connor is going to replace him.”
Orange Lady’s husband heard me and quickly said, “He’s not going to pull the Worminator. Keith is just too valuable for O’Connor to do that now.”
I turned around and replied, “O’Connor would never put a .200 hitter at the plate with two outs and the game on the line. No coach would do that.”
Hat-banging guy backed me up with, “He’s right.”
Our attention shifted back to the field as their pitcher wound up to deliver his pitch. King copied Coleman and smacked one up the middle, too. The ball ricocheted off the pitcher’s foot and went out onto the grass. Coleman was safe at second with King at first and all of us waiting to see who was next.
Now the chess match started. O’Connor came out of the dugout and was standing next to Werman. UC Irvine’s coach, Mike Gillespie, came out to the mound to talk to Summers. Werman ducked into the dugout and pinch-hitter Reed Gragnani came to the plate. Then O’Connor replaced Coleman at second with pinch-runner Mitchell Shifflett, the fastest guy on the team. The crowd energy was escalating. But Reed never hit the ball. He drew a four-pitch walk to load the bases.
We were all cheering for Gragnani and how easy he made that look. Most everyone was now standing on their seats to get the best view possible. We had Shifflett on third, King on second and Gragnani on first. Then O’Connor sent speedy Corey Hunt into the game to pinch-run for King at second.
So with bases loaded, here comes the top of the order to the plate, Chris Taylor. There was a deafening roar coming from every inch of Davenport Field. Taylor was having a good day, a hit and a walk. He was in one of the biggest games of his career; one run down and bases loaded with two outs. You couldn’t ask for a better finish.
The kids standing down along the rail were bouncing up and down, giving high fives, and talking some smack. “Y’all Anteaters need to head on home now. Game over,” they yelled. Another one hollered, “Watch out, Summers. He likes to hit pitchers.”
With Taylor at the plate, another little piece of drama was unfolding in the dugout. I noticed something going on between Hultzen and O’Connor. Hultzen began running around the dugout and looking on all the benches as if searching for something.
“He’s trying to find his glove,” Jim said. It looked like O’Connor had told Hultzen to get in the bullpen and start warming up. Finding his glove, he headed that way. O’Connor was going to be ready with our best pitcher in case we tied it. After all, if we lost, there was no tomorrow.
Summers wound up to pitch and delivered a strike to Taylor. The intensity of the crowd buzz dropped, but the kids on the rail never let up with their cheering.
The next pitch from Summers looked like a fastball, but Taylor was swinging this time and sent the ball right up the same path that Coleman and King had taken. This shot went into center field, and the stands were shaking from the fans jumping up and down on their seats. Arms in the air, hands waving around, and loud screaming drowned out the noise coming from the players surrounding home plate as Shifflett crossed with Hunt rounding third. Associate head coach Kevin McMullan was jumping up and down with his right arm spinning like a windmill telling Hunt to move it. With UVA players crowding around Shifflett as he crossed the plate, every eye was on Hunt as he came in and did a popup slide on home plate. The stadium erupted.
The decibel level had to be the loudest it had ever been at Davenport Field. People were double high-fiving, others were jumping up and down, and I even had Orange Lady smack me on the back with both hands two or three times. I didn’t care. I was screaming along with everyone else. All eyes from the stands were glued to the field as we saw the UVA players rush the mound to dog-pile near second base. Ronnie Shaeffer, the catcher for UC Irvine, got mowed over by rushing players. He got up, and then was mowed over again. The rest of the Anteaters looked like the sky had just fallen. They were slowly wandering towards right field as the Cavaliers were still dog-piling.
We watched as Coach McMullan jumped on top of the pile. The players were ecstatic. High fives were still being slapped. Strangers embraced, forever bonded forever by having witnessed the most dramatic baseball comeback in UVA history. The kids on the front railing continued the high-pitch cheer that had begun with Taylor’s hit and seemed to have no end.
We all saw our players, who had now risen from the pile, begin to run to the bleachers in left field carrying a banner with bold print that read, ”We’re Going to Omaha.” Players jumped up, smacking the hands of the Hoo faithful who leaned over the rail to touch their new heroes. From bleacher to bleacher, our players showed their appreciation to us, their fans, for supporting them and cheering them to victory.
So the three of us stood on our seats and watched everything around us. People were starting to leave. We all finally made the eye contact that said it was time to go. Turning around, we bid farewell to our new-found friends, not knowing any of their names. “We’ll see you here next season,” Orange Lady said to us. Her husband smiled, we shook hands and then he slapped me on the shoulder. I high-fived hat-banging guy while we edged out toward the exit. On the field, Coach O’Connor, who was doing a postgame interview with ESPN, got totally drenched in what had to be the best Gatorade bath ever. More cheers erupted, but we couldn’t stay. On the way down the stairs, I looked back at the field one more time and said to Jim, “Thanks, man. These memories will last a lifetime.”