By Alexis Brudnicki
Virginia has something to prove.
In a season with its share of ups and downs, the Cavaliers have been doubted, they’ve been questioned, and they’ve even been counted out. But after winning three straight games to advance from the regional round on the road to Omaha, they’re beginning to do what they set out to do every year, hoping to silence critics along the way.
“We’ve proved a lot so far because we had kind of a rough season during the regular season,” Cavs shortstop and Toronto's Danny Pinero said. “We’ve proved a lot during the post-season and we’ve showed a lot of other teams what we can actually do.
“I mean, we’re already going to super regionals again and a lot people who talk about NCAA baseball don’t think we deserve to be in this spot right now because of the season we’ve had, but I think we proved them wrong. And we still have a little chip on our shoulder to prove more to people.”
In Pinero’s freshman year last year, Virginia took its season right to the end, making it to the championship round of the College World Series and eventually coming up short against Vanderbilt. While that team was special because of its makeup, he believes this year’s vastly different squad has the ability to get back to where they were.
“We still have a couple characters on the team,” the 21-year-old said. “But what’s special about it is that half our team is freshmen and we’ve made it really far. We’ve going into super regionals and half our team are a bunch of freshmen. If we can make it further than that we will prove to a lot of people that even though you’re freshmen you can still play, so that’s a good thing.”
The Cavaliers were the No. 3 seed in the four-team Lake Elsinore Regional in the Field of 64 – a big difference from being the No. 3 seed in the nation last year – getting two solid pitching performances in their first two wins before coming back from a four-run deficit to win their third matchup in extra innings.
“We just kept fighting,” Pinero said. “There were a couple times that we were down, and USC had some big innings so we knew we had to. We had four or five runs to come back from and it took us a little while but we came back. We kept our heads in there and just kept fighting.
“There was one game against USC – the first game – that we got no-hit until the seventh inning, and nobody really cared about that. We wanted to win the game and even though we had no hits for seven innings we found a way to win. That’s what drove us.”
Virginia will host Maryland in their super regional for the second consecutive year, after the Terps took down the No. 1 seed in the nation in UCLA to advance from their regional pool over the weekend.
“That’s crazy,” Pinero said of facing Maryland again. “I don’t think it’s happened a lot in the NCAA. I know Maryland is going to come out strong because of what happened last year, and it will be a good super regional. We get to play at home so that will be another good things for us. But I know Maryland has something to prove, so they’re going to come out strong.”
After a season in which he hit .299/.407/.421 with six homers, seven doubles, a triple, 54 runs and 28 RBI, with more walks than strikeouts, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound draft-eligible sophomore is excited to get a chance to play in front of the home fans at Davenport Field again, where the Wahoos have only played 21 games so far this year because of weather and field conditions.
“It will help us a lot,” Pinero said. “When you get six thousand people screaming for you it’s something to cherish. It will help us a lot and we’ll be pumped up for it.”
Pinero is one of four Canadian players still remaining on the road to Omaha, joined by Missouri State’s Joey Hawkins (Whitby, Ont.), TCU’s Jeremie Fagnan (Calgary, Alta.) and Illinois’ Kelly Norris-Jones (Victoria, BC).
He and Hawkins both grew up in the Ontario Blue Jays program, played for the Canadian Junior National Team, are starting shortstops for their teams, and were named to the Brooks Wallace Award watch list earlier this season, recognizing the best collegiate players at the position. Hawkins is happy to be on the same path Pinero took last year, and both hope they might meet in the next round in Omaha.
“I remember last year I was sitting in the middle-of-nowhere, North Carolina for summer ball and I was watching Danny on ESPN and just thinking I could be there next year,” Hawkins said. “That was something that I really wanted to do and now that I’m here, it’s crazy. It will be fun to be on ESPN and I’m sure I’ll get the shout out for being Canadian so I’ll represent as long as I can.”
All of the players have been feeling the love from north of the border, and even on the same journey for the second time in as many years, Pinero is still just letting it all sink in.
“Twitter has been blowing up from the Ontario Blue Jays and Team Canada and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s cool to represent those guys and I know Joey and [Fagnan and Norris-Jones] are all happy to represent the few in the country, so it’s a cool experience…
“I don’t know if it’s sunk in, but I know that when we step on the field with all the fans there we’ll be thinking wow, we have a chance to do this again. We have a chance to go back to Omaha. It will be a lot of fun for sure.”