Keith Werman scores late against Oklahoma. Jim Daves/UVa Media Relations photo.
Absent from Davenport Field was the storybook, ninth-inning comeback that sent the UVA baseball team to the College World Series a year ago. The Cavaliers dropped two games Sunday, each by a single run, and were eliminated from the regional playoff they hosted.
“This game is funny,” said head coach Brian O’Connor, whose team finished its season 39-19-1. “We had an opportunity there in the ninth, and you just never know what run that you give up will cost you the ball game. Overall, I’m very proud of this team and what we have accomplished. I’m sure we will have this opportunity again.”
Keith Werman, however, will not have such an opportunity.
The 5’7” second baseman fought back tears in the moments following his final game in a UVA uniform, a 5-4 loss to Oklahoma, the eventual champion of the Charlottesville Regional.
Nicknamed “Ninja,” Werman epitomized a scrappy team that scratched and clawed for each of its achievements, including a ninth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
That Davenport Field – now a picturesque home to a perennial power – even hosted a regional was an improbable feat unto itself. Following the finale of a three-game sweep at the hands of Florida State in mid-March, the Cavaliers’ record stood 11-8-1. Compare that to last year’s 56-win team, which lost for the eighth time on the 20th day of May – the penultimate game of a 54-game regular season.
That group, which included two-time ACC Pitcher of the Year and second overall draft pick Danny Hultzen, spent 12 weeks atop the national rankings and advanced to the College World Series for only the second time in school history.
Without Hultzen and a host of other players currently playing for pay, expectations for the youthful 2012 team were first tempered – then lowered after an uncharacteristically slow start.
Enter O’Connor, a thoughtful, confident baseball man, flanked by his accomplished assistant coaches Kevin McMullan and Karl Kuhn.
“It’s certainly, if not the best, one of the best staffs in the country,” said Appalachian State coach Chris Pollard, whose team beat Virginia, 6-5, Sunday afternoon.
Renowned for player development – 46 (and counting) of his Cavaliers have been drafted by Major League Baseball organizations – O’Connor masterminded his team’s late surge.
There was the first-year class – Derek Fisher, Nate Irving, and Brandon Downes among them – that was forced to contribute in a hurry.
“When we recruit them here,” said O’Connor. “We tell them that’s the deal: You’re expected to win, you’re expected to carry yourself the right way, you’re expected to perform in the clutch, and we’re going to have very, very high standards for each and every one of them.”
Certainly this year’s team had returning talent, but it relied heavily on young players – and, of course, on all 150 pounds of Werman.
As the senior approached Davenport Field’s home plate for the final time, the Wahoo faithful rose to their feet and applauded throughout his final at-bat.
A one-out RBI single capped a career, kept his team’s fight alive, and provided an appropriate metaphor for a season that will not end in victory.
“That’s what this program is made of – all nine innings and all twenty-seven outs,” said Werman, who will be remembered for his sacrifice bunts, steady glove, and sprints to and from the dugout. “We just didn’t come out on top. You always know it’s not over until it’s over.”
Though the UVA baseball season is now over for Werman and classmates Justin Thompson and Shane Halley (the team’s starting pitcher against Oklahoma), the trio played on teams that made two College World Series appearances, won three NCAA Regional titles and two Atlantic Coast Conference championships, and tallied an astounding 195 wins in all.
“They have always represented our program with a tremendous amount of class,” O’Connor said. “They are warriors and they play the game the right away. They play hard all the time. It is disappointing that this is the end for them.”
That their season ended in the NCAA Tournament and on their home field should serve as consolation.
Virginia won 25 of its final 33 regular season games and narrowly missed playing for its third conference title in four years.
“There was a point that we were 11-8 with this ball club,” said O’Connor, who has now racked up 411 wins in nine seasons as Cavalier skipper. “We made some adjustments to our approach and how we were going about our business. We went off on a pretty good run and earned the right to play here at home.”
Just as it righted its regular season, Virginia nearly erased deficits of 6-0 and 5-1, respectively, Sunday. But the Cavaliers stranded 20 baserunners in two games, made atypical errors in the field, and eventually ran out of outs.
Still, this team defied its doubters. Virginia baseball was expected to rebuild in 2012. Instead, it reloaded.
And a ninja etched his name on our hearts.