East Carolina had Virginia on the ropes so many times Saturday, it seemed only a matter of time before the Pirates would land the knockout punch. Travis Watkins finally did.
The junior catcher hit his fourth home run of the season, a three-run walk-off shot to left off UVa closer Tommy Doyle, to cap a five-run rally and propel the third-seeded Pirates to an improbable 8-6 victory over the top-seeded Cavaliers in the Charlottesville Regional of the NCAA baseball tournament.
“I saw a slider away and took it, (then) he made me look bad on a slider away,” Watkins said. “I wasn’t trying to hit a home run. I was trying to give us a chance and get the barrel to the ball.”
ECU’s fourth walk-off victory of the season leaves the Pirates (36-21-1), who were the designated home team Saturday, one win away from a trip to the super regionals for the first time since 2009. They have never won a regional they didn’t host in their three previous advances.
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Charlie Yorgen led ECU with four hits and has seven so far in the regional. Garrett Brooks added three of ECU’s 15 hits. Pavin Smith hit two home runs and had three RBIs to pace the Cavaliers, who also got a two-run double from Matt Thaiss in a four-run third inning off ECU starter Jimmy Boyd.
UVa (38-21) will play William & Mary (30-30) at 11 a.m. Sunday in an elimination game. The fourth-seeded Tribe edged second-seeded Bryant 4-3 in an elimination game earlier Saturday. ECU will play the winner at 3 p.m. Sunday for the regional championship. Should the losers’ bracket team win the second game Sunday, the teams would play again at 6 p.m. Monday in the double-elimination format.
Sophomore right-hander Joe Ingle (6-3), the fourth ECU pitcher, got the win for the Pirates with 1 2/3 innings of hitless relief. Doyle (2-6) took the loss, allowing five hits and five runs in the ninth after starting the inning with a 6-3 lead.
Doyle had relieved for UVa in the eighth with a runner on base and retired two batters on strikeouts. “When you look at his stuff, look at what he did in the eighth inning,” ECU coach Cliff Godwin said. “He made us look stupid.”
But Doyle was immediately in trouble in the ninth. Pinch-hitter Kirk Morgan led off with an infield single, and Parker Lamm doubled down the left-field line for a run. Lamm scored on a single to right by Yorgen, and Dwanya Williams-Sutton singled to left. After a sacrifice bunt by Turner Brown moved both runners into scoring position, Watkins drove a 1-1 pitch over the left-field wall for his fourth home run. The Pirates had gone 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position before the ninth inning.
“I don’t know what to say other than our guys fought their butts off the whole game,” Godwin said. “They were facing one of the toughest pitchers in the country.”
UVa starter Connor Jones, who threw 102 pitches in the heat and humidity, allowed nine hits and three runs, hit two batters and threw two wild pitches in 5 1/3 innings. But he repeatedly kept the Pirates from a big inning. ECU got the first two batters on base in four of the six innings Jones pitched but couldn’t come up with the key hit. The Pirates left eight runners on base through six innings, including the first four at third.
“We were one hit away pretty much every inning throughout the game,” Yorgen said. “Over time, getting pressure on them, allowed us to get success in the bottom of the ninth when you have to.”
“I felt like we were really fortunate, quite frankly, going into the ninth inning because they did a nice job against Connor,” UVa coach Brian O’Connor said. “We were fortunate to be in the situation that we were with a chance to win the game in the ninth inning.”
It was the second time Jones had faced ECU this season, and both times he came away with no decision.
“I thought our guys get up for him because we have three or four guys from Richmond, and they know him,” Godwin said of the All-ACC pitcher, who hails from the Tidewater area. “And Virginia has been the team, they’re the defending national champions. We want to take East Carolina where Virginia has been. … East Carolina has been to more regionals than any team in the country that hasn’t gone to Omaha” (for the College World Series).