Thursday, May 19, 2011

Virginia Is For (Baseball) Lovers

It's been exactly six months since I started this blog...and during that time, I have become extremely proud of it.

So far, there have been over 1,400 views of the 25 previous posts. I can't properly express how grateful I am for all of your support and feedback.

When I came up with this idea, I had no idea if it would be a success. In fact, I wasn't even sure if I could come up with enough stories to sustain it. Hopefully the next six months will be even better than what I've presented to this point.

Thanks once again for reading!

Throughout the country, college baseball teams are wrapping up their regular seasons.

For some schools, this time of year serves as a bridge to higher aspirations. Dreams of winning a conference championship, reaching the NCAA Tournament and even heading to the College World Series remain within reach.

For others, it marks the end of the road. Many senior ballplayers who have spent years practicing and competing are reaching the culmination of their careers. It is an emotional time -- one final chance to go all-out on the baseball field while enjoying the cameraderie of teammates.

Although the level of competition varies, college baseball is all around us

While they fall under the same governing body of the NCAA, not all games are created equal.

In the small and mid-major conferences, the goals are more modest. Qualifying for the NCAA Tournament would make the program's season a profound success. An individual player's goal is to be recognized by the conference for his extend his hopes of playing professionally someday. Attendance at games can occasionally be sparse, and concession options may be limited...but those numbers are a distant second to what happens on the field.

In college baseball's power conferences -- such as the ACC, SEC, Big XII, and Pac-10 -- there are loftier expectations. National rankings and All-America honors are within reach for the elite teams and players. Professional baseball careers are more likely. For the top teams in the country, the "Road to Omaha" isn't just a's a way of life. Anything short of a trip to the College World Series is unacceptable. Attendance can rival that of Minor League Baseball teams, and more attention is given to game presentation and concession sales.

The power conference schools set lofty goals each year

Despite those many differences, the players are the constant...competing with passion and a drive to succeed. The public may determine the game's popularity...but to those on the field, it's one of the most important things in their lives.

Last weekend, I wanted to experience both atmospheres for myself. On Friday, I was in Williamsburg, Virginia to watch William & Mary take on Georgia State in a Colonial Athletic Association matchup. The next day, I traveled to Charlottesville to see Virginia host Miami in a key Atlantic Coast Conference contest.


It was a chilly and damp Friday the 13th upon arriving at William & Mary's Plumeri Park in Williamsburg.

Gray skies dominated the landscape at Plumeri Park

As thick, gray clouds hung overhead, an important baseball game was about to take place. The Georgia State Panthers -- entering the game with a 34-16 overall record and 14-11 conference mark -- were fighting for a spot in the upcoming Colonial Athletic Association Tournament.

The William & Mary Tribe were competing for a CAA Tournament spot as well, though they faced an uphill climb. With a 23-26 overall record -- and 13-12 standing in the conference -- the Tribe would have to leapfrog a couple of schools to qualify for the four-team CAA postseason.

It was an important conference game for both the Tribe and Panthers

The threatening weather kept fans to a minimum. Only 251 people passed through the turnstiles at Plumeri Park on this night, but those in attendance would certainly get their money's worth.

The threatening weather affected attendance

Watching from metal bleacher seats above the 1st base dugout, the Panthers would strike first against Tribe starter Logan Billbrough. A two-out single by catcher Shane Hammond would give Georgia State a 1-0 lead in the 2nd inning.

Georgia State celebrates scoring the 1st run of the game

William & Mary would immediately respond in the bottom of the 2nd, as a leadoff walk to sophomore left fielder Ryan Williams set the tone. The Tribe would rally for 4 runs against the Panthers' Charley a combination of hits, stolen bases and errors rattled the starting pitcher.

William & Mary rallied for four runs in the bottom of the 2nd inning

After allowing a leadoff home run to left fielder Mark Micowski in the 3rd inning, Billbrough would settle in and unleash a gutty performance. Facing a Georgia State team that was collectively batting .312 for the season, the Tribe right-hander posted zeroes on the scoreboard in the middle innings.

Senior Logan Billbrough kept the Georgia State offense in-check

In the bottom of the 6th, William & Mary would add to its lead. Second baseman Jonathan Slattery would start things off by blasting a home run to left field. It would spark another four-run rally, giving the Tribe an 8-2 advantage.

2nd baseman Jonathan Slattery is greeted after his 6th inning home run

Refusing to pack it in, Georgia State scored two runs against Billbrough in the top of the 7th...thanks in part to a botched double play. It was now an 8-4 game...and in a sport that features aluminum bats, the outcome is still in doubt.

Panthers' coaches encourage their players to keep battling

Despite that hiccup, however, Billbrough continued with a mixture of fastballs, sliders and change-ups to keep the Panthers off-balance. During 8 innings of work in a must-win game, Billbrough threw 141 pitches and struck out 12 batters. He left with an 8-4 lead as the game went into the 9th inning.

Billbrough allowed 4 runs over 8 innings -- tossing 141 pitches

Faced with desperation, Georgia State launched a furious comeback attempt in the final frame. A leadoff walk was followed by a single, double, walk, sacrifice fly and throwing error...leading to three Panthers' runs. It was now 8-7, and the tying run was on 2nd base!

Georgia State rallied in the 9th inning

As a light mist began to fall, those who remained in the stands were clapping in rhythm, hoping for a Tribe victory. A loss could very well seal their fate for the season.

With 2 outs, sophomore pinch-hitter Drew Shields stepped up to the plate, representing the go-ahead run. On a 1-1 count, Shields smoked a grounder up the middle...but the ball settled into the glove of William & Mary closer Brett Koehler. He threw Shields out at 1st base, and the Tribe celebrated a hard-fought victory.

The game-ending comebacker to the mound

Although it didn't carry the pedigree of a top-tier college baseball game, William & Mary vs. Georgia State provided some great entertainment.

Tribe fans got a win -- and their money's worth

It was now time to see if Virginia and Miami could live up to the national hype.


The gray clouds persisted over Charlottesville on Saturday afternoon, but nothing would put a damper on this spectacular ACC matchup.

Damp conditions didn't prevent nearly 4,000 from coming to Davenport Field

The Virginia Cavaliers were ranked #1 in the country. Sporting an amazing 43-6 overall record, and 20-5 mark in the ACC, Virginia was far from fighting for their postseason lives. Instead, they were trying to make a statement to the rest of the nation...that they were a legitimate part of the national championship picture.

Virginia was looking to improve upon its 43-6 record

The Miami Hurricanes -- with a 32-16 record and 17-7 conference mark -- were ranked #16 by Baseball America. Ten years removed since its last national championship, Miami was trying to re-establish its elite program status. Winning a road series against the top team in the country would go a long way toward achieving that goal.

The Hurricanes were shooting for a road series win against #1 Virginia

Davenport Field was buzzing with spirit over an hour before the game's first pitch. Ushers handed out navy-and-orange pom-poms to each of the 3,968 people in attendance, to help cheer on the Cavaliers. Merchandise tents were busy selling Virginia hats, t-shirts -- and even replica jerseys. Concession stands featured a steady line of customers. It was an entirely different scene from the previous night.

Merchandise tents had a steady stream of customers throughout the game

As gametime approached, seating areas surrounding the field were becoming swollen with fans. Unlike the William & Mary game -- which featured mostly friends and family members in the stands -- Davenport Field included a mix of young and old, students and alumni, Virginia fans and Miami supporters, and baseball fans in general. It wasn't just an ordinary college baseball game.

No shortage of fans at the Virginia-Miami game

On the field, the pitchers set the tone early. The Hurricanes sent sophomore Eric Whaley -- with his 7-3 record and 2.99 ERA -- to the mound. The Cavaliers countered with senior right-hander Tyler Wilson, who had a 5-0 record and 2.85 ERA on the year.

Tyler Wilson had his unblemished record on the line in this game

After a scoreless first couple of innings, the 'Hoos struck first in the bottom of the 3rd. An error by Miami 2nd baseman Zeke DeVoss allowed senior outfielder John Barr to reach base. Barr then stole 2nd, and came around to score on a 2-out single by junior catcher John Hicks. The entire sequence was indicative of why Virginia is #1 in the nation -- the elite teams take advantage of small openings.

John Hicks lined a single up the middle for the game's 1st run

Meanwhile, Wilson was pitching a gem. Hurricane after Hurricane was being sent back to the dugout with a grimace on their face. For the first 5 innings, Wilson would not allow a baserunner.

Miami would not get a baserunner for the first 5 2/3 innings

The dreams of a perfect game would end with 2 outs in the 6th, however, as Miami catcher Shane Rowland lined a double to the right-center field gap. The crowd stood and applauded Wilson for his effort. Unfazed by the hit, Wilson retired the next batter he faced...and Virginia maintained their 1-0 lead.

Wilson struck out 11, and allowed only 1 hit over 7 2/3 IP

After tacking on insurance runs in the 6th and 7th innings, Virginia held a 3-0 advantage as the game went into the 9th. On the mound was Cavaliers' closer Branden Kline, a sophomore with 13 saves and a 1.57 ERA on the season. It was a daunting task for the #16 Hurricanes.

A great baseball setting in Charlottesville

Much like the previous night, the visiting team would battle to the very end. A leadoff walk, a passed ball, another walk, an RBI single and a sacrifice fly suddenly made it a 3-2 game...with the tying run on 1st base for Miami!

Harold Martinez got the 'Canes on the board with an RBI single in the 9th

As Miami right fielder Ryan Carey stepped into the batter's box, a nervous buzz emanated from the Davenport Field crowd...almost all of them hopeful for a Virginia win. Every player in the Cavaliers' dugout stood and watched, ready to celebrate.

The Virginia dugout watches and waits...

Kline took the sign, went into the stretch and made his pitch. Carey bounced a chopper to shortstop. Sophomore Chris Taylor charged the ball, made the snag and threw on the run to 1st...getting Carey by a step to preserve the 3-2 victory.

Miami's Ryan Carey bounces to short to end the game

With the final out, a happy Virginia dugout ran onto the field to congratulate each other. A dejected Miami dugout hung their heads and quietly packed up their equipment. The fans cheered along as the UVa fight song played over the public address system.

The #1 team in the country holds on at the end

After many fans had left, there was a subtle reminder that despite the professional atmosphere, this was still college baseball. After meeting with their coaches, the entire Virginia team started pulling the tarp onto the field. The #1 team in the nation was its own grounds crew.

The Cavaliers do their own yardwork after the game


Within 24 hours, I had witnessed two college baseball games. The circumstances surrounding each game were very different, as was the game presentation and the amount of interest that was generated.

Still, there was a purity that existed in both games...a "love of the game" mentality that often gets clouded when watching professional sporting events. The entertainment value was there too -- as neither game was truly decided until the final out was recorded.

Going back to school isn't so bad, after all.

My father's birthday present -- some big-time college baseball

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