By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
Danny Pinero is on his way back to the College World Series for the second time in as many years at the University of Virginia.
A draft-eligible sophomore, the Toronto native and the Cavaliers defied the odds and quieted their critics, defeating Maryland in two games in the super-regional round to advance to Omaha after taking out three teams in the regional round as the third-seeded squad of four in their pool.
The road to Omaha has a distinctly different feeling for the Cavs this year, after being labelled the favourites to win it all last year – the team eventually falling to Vanderbilt in the championship – and being doubted this season.
“Last year we were a pretty stacked team; we were solid,” Pinero said. “We were chosen as the favourites coming into Omaha. And this year we’re kind of the opposite – we’re the underdogs. A lot of people doubted that we were going to make it all the way to Omaha and we’ve proved them wrong.”
Virginia brings a young team to TD Ameritrade Park next weekend, with plenty of new faces and eyes that will be opened to the wonder of the World Series. Pinero and the rest of his teammates who have been there before have had no trouble getting the freshmen excited, but have also tried to get them ready for what lay ahead.
“This is my second year in a row and I’ve experienced Omaha and everything, and we went to the finals,” the 21-year-old shortstop said. “We tell the freshmen how cool it is and how ecstatic the stadium gets for every game. We’re all kind of hyped up right now.
“The experience that we have on our team this year from Omaha last year helps us in what we’ve got to do, and we share that with our freshmen so that’s a good thing.”
Looking forward to Nebraska, Cavaliers head coach Brian O’Connor has seemingly exerted extra effort this season to make sure that his players cherish every moment of the ride they’re on, and the players are certainly making their best attempt at following his orders.
“We pulled off something that many people didn’t think we were going to do,” Pinero said. “We did it, so he wanted us to enjoy the moment before it’s time to get back to business in Omaha. He told us to have fun with it and enjoy it. He told us not every player or team gets the opportunity to do this, especially two years in a row for some of us players, so it’s a cool experience.”
In both games of the Cavs’ super-regional round against the Terps – defeating them at supers for the second consecutive season to move on – Virginia was down and forced to work out of a hole. The second matchup saw a ninth-inning rally ending in a walkoff victory to clinch a spot among the final eight teams in the nation, a fitting ending to the weekend.
“Our comebacks – those were pretty cool,” Pinero said. “The second game we were down coming into the ninth and we just kind of rallied. I was in the back of the dugout just praying, we were scoring runs one by one, and then Ernie [Clement] comes up big with a hit and we just went crazy. The fans were loud, we dogpiled, and it was a crazy moment with everyone doubting us and proving them wrong …it was amazing.”
The former Canadian Junior National Team member and graduate of the Ontario Blue Jays program isn’t sure yet if that was the highlight of his collegiate career so far, but it definitely ranks among them.
“It’s up there,” he said. “Just going back to Omaha again [is at the top]. It’s one of the best places in the world, so going back there and being able to experience that again, I’m just lucky. I know a lot of people don’t get the chance to do this, so I’ve been really lucky these past two years … it doesn’t happen to many people.”
Amidst the madness, Pinero didn’t even get a chance to really soak it all in at Davenport Field, where he might have played his last home game as a Cavalier, with the draft starting Monday and his future somewhat uncertain.
“I was just thinking about getting back to Omaha,” the 6-foot-5, 210-pound infielder said. “I didn’t really care about the draft at the time, I just wanted to get my team back to Omaha, any way and anyhow. [If it was] my last game there, there’s no better way to go out than having a walkoff hit and going to Omaha. It could be my last game, but it was a hell of a game, so I’m happy with that.”
After arriving in Nebraska, Virginia will first face Arkansas to start their World Series run. The Razorbacks took down Missouri State University to advance, knocking out Pinero’s fellow former Ontario Blue Jays shortstop and native of Whitby, Ont., Joey Hawkins, a senior with the Bears.
“They knocked of a good Missouri State team, so I know Arkansas is a good team,” Pinero said. “I know we’re a good team also, so it will be a hell of a game. We haven’t really talked about the team yet or their players, but it is Omaha, so they have to be a good team … After Joey’s team lost he reached out to me and said, ‘Go get those Razorbacks guys,’ so we’ll keep in touch during the College World Series and I was happy he reached out to me.”
With a second chance to reach the ultimate goal in what could be his last days as an amateur player, Pinero is looking forward to the opportunity to finish what he and his team started last year, without pressure and unfazed by the competition.
“We know in Omaha anyone can win,” he said.