Finally, vulnerability. Finally, a challenge.
How will Virginia's Cavaliers, borderline invincible in their first four games of this NCAA baseball tournament, respond with their season suddenly on the line Monday after just one hiccup?
"You just don't walk through this thing," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "That's for sure."
UC Irvine made that point abundantly clear to O'Connor's club Sunday, overcoming a 3-run deficit to win Game 2 of their Super Regional 6-4.
The Cavaliers and Anteaters collide again Monday — first pitch is schedule for 4 p.m. on ESPN2 — with the survivor heading to the College World Series.
Top-seeded Virginia (53-10) had waltzed past Navy, St. John's, East Carolina and UC Irvine (43-17) in this tournament, the latter victory by 6-0 on Saturday.
And when the Cavaliers led 3-0 after 4 1/2 innings Sunday, you had to wonder if they were in the Anteaters' heads. Irvine had not scored in 13 innings here over two days, and dating to the 2009 NCAA tournament had managed one run versus Virginia in 31 innings.
But the No. 1 seed hasn't won the national championship since Miami in 1999, and a turn seemed inevitable.
Sure enough, like clockwork, lightning and rain arrived at 2:21 p.m., one minute earlier than Saturday. This delay, four hours, 18 minutes, was three times longer than Saturday, making the bullpens pivotal.
Cavaliers relievers Justin Thompson and Branden Kline allowed five runs and five hits in two innings. Anteaters freshman Andrew Thurman yielded one run and three hits in four innings.
"The Thurman kid came in and pitched a great game," O'Connor said. "He had a very good change-up and kept our hitters off-balance."
Still, Irvine needed a pulse offensively.
Clean-up hitter Drew Hillman provided it with a solo home run over the left-field bleachers off starter Tyler Wilson in the sixth, narrowing the margin to 3-1.
"That changed the mentality in the dugout for us, no question," Anteaters coach Mike Gillespie said. "Everybody got electrified."
Wilson escaped the sixth without further damage, but his 82 pitches combined with the weather delay prompted O'Connor to lean on his bullpen.
"We've been going to Thompson and Kline in that scenario all year long," O'Connor said.
Thompson yielded the tying runs in the seventh, and after Hillman touched him for a one-out double in the eighth, O'Connor summoned his closer, Kline, for what would have been a five-out save.
Kline's first pitch plunked Jordan Fox, a precursor of the trouble to follow.
Two batters later, designated hitter Jordan Leyland drilled a hanging slider into the left-center gap for a 2-run double and Irvine's first lead, 5-4.
"Hitting's contagious for us," Leyland said.
Is losing contagious for Virginia? The Cavaliers haven't dropped two straight at home since … well, that's a memory the orange-and-blue faithful prefer to avoid.
Last year Virginia defeated Oklahoma to open the Super Regional here, only to lose the next two. The decisive Game 3 was an 11-0 blowout.
The Cavaliers certainly are better equipped for starting pitching this time. Will Roberts, he of the perfect game against George Washington, will take the ball for Virginia. He's 11-1 with a 1.61 ERA.
"We have such a great team," Kline said. "We all have confidence in each other."
"This team has carried themselves with confidence all year long," O'Connor said. "Heck, we've only got 10 losses, and we've got a pretty good pitcher going (Monday). … I'm sure it's going to come down to the end again."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times