CHARLOTTESVILLE — Just when Virginia looked ready to slide comfortably into the driver's seat Saturday in the Charlottesville Regional of the NCAA baseball tournament, East Carolina changed everything in less than 15 minutes.
ECU's Travis Watkins blasted a three-run home run over the left field wall off U.Va. closer Tommy Doyle to cap a five-run ninth inning for the Pirates and lead them to a stunning 8-6 win against the Cavaliers.
U.Va., the reigning national champions, now finds itself in an elimination game Sunday at 11 a.m. against regional No. 4 seed William and Mary (30-30), which the Cavaliers defeated 17-4 on Friday.
"It hurts," said U.Va. catcher Matt Thaiss, who saw the Cavaliers' 10-game winning streak in regional games snapped. "Guys are ticked off. At the same time, this regional is far from over."
Coming into the ninth trailing 6-3, ECU (36-21-1) was in position to move on to its own elimination game situation Sunday after failing to produce with runners in scoring position in the first eight innings, and watching Pavin Smith become the first U.Va. player to hit two home runs in an NCAA tournament game.
ECU wasn't done.
Parker Lamm got the scoring started in the ninth for No. 3 seed ECU when he delivered an RBI double down the left field line to score Wes Phillips from first base.
Charlie Yorgen followed with a single to right field to bring Lamm across the plate and cut U.Va.'s lead to 6-5 with no outs. Before Yorgen's hit, ECU was 0 of 12 with runners in scoring position. Yorgen went 4 of 5 with a double, a run scored and an RBI.
ECU's rally continued when Dwanya Williams-Sutton singled to left off Doyle (2-6), moving Yorgen to second base.
After a sacrifice bunt by Turner Brown, Watkins crushed a 1-1 pitch from Doyle, who entered the game with no outs in the eighth inning. Left fielder Charlie Cody turned to the wall, took a couple quick steps and watched the ball sail away.
"(Doyle) made me look pretty bad on a slider away," said Watkins, who had gone hitless in his first four at bats before his home run. "I just tried to focus on seeing it up and I think I got a fastball in the heart of the plate. I got the barrel to it, and that's all I was trying to do...I wasn't trying to hit a home run. I was just trying to give us a chance and get the barrel to the ball."
While ECU celebrated, top seed U.Va.'s players and coaches slowly trudged onto the field, or simply stood with hands on their hips staring in shocked amazement.
"Certainly as difficult a loss as we've had in the NCAA tournament really," said U.Va. coach Brian O'Connor, adding he's leaning toward starting left-hander Adam Haseley (9-3, 1.73 earned run average) on the mound against W&M.
"(Doyle has) been our closer since the middle part of the (Atlantic Coast Conference) season. We weren't getting anybody else loose down there. It was his ballgame."
ECU plays Sunday at 3 p.m. against the winner of the W&M-U.Va. game. ECU has beaten U.Va. three times in four meetings this season at Davenport Field in Charlottesville, including two wins in the regular season.
Now, if U.Va. can get past W&M, the Cavaliers will have to beat the Pirates twice in two days to win the regional.
Back in the first inning Saturday, ECU jumped out to a 1-0 lead, but U.Va. starting pitcher Connor Jones was able to avoid further damage. A double play with the bases loaded helped him minimize the Pirates' scoring opportunities.
Lamm led off the game by reaching on a throwing error by shortstop Daniel Pinero. Lamm moved to third on a double to right field by Yorgen. ECU proceeded to load the bases when Jones walked Williams-Sutton.
Jones put the brakes on what could've been a huge inning for ECU by getting Brown to hit into a double play. Lamm scored on the play, but Yorgen was later left stranded at third base.
Jones had to work hard just to get through 5 1/3 innings. He threw 102 pitches, surrendering nine hits and three runs (two earned) while walking one and striking out three.
U.Va. (38-21) grabbed momentum in the third inning by capitalizing on back-to-back errant pitches by ECU starting right-hander Jimmy Boyd.
With runners on first and second base and one out, Thaiss ripped a two-RBI double into left field. Smith immediately followed with a two-run home run to right field to put U.Va. up 4-1.
Despite ECU's inability to hit with runners in scoring position, it was still able to chip away at U.Va.'s lead. In the third, Lamm and Yorgen started the inning by reaching base on consecutive singles.
After a wild pitch by Jones moved the runners up a base, Brown brought Lamm home by grounding out to first base to extend U.Va.'s advantage to 4-2.
ECU came close to scratching out more runs in the first four innings, leaving runners stranded at third in each of the innings.
Thaiss helped U.Va. wiggle out of potential problems in the fourth inning when ECU put runners on base with one out. Thaiss caught Eric Tyler wandering too far off first base, retiring him via a snap throw to first.
Williams-Sutton countered with an even bigger defensive play for ECU in the sixth inning to rob U.Va. of a run.
Leading off the inning, Pinero gave a pitch from freshman right-handed relief pitcher Matt Bridges a ride to the warning track in left field, but Williams-Sutton made a leaping grab at the wall for the first out.
Jones experienced his most harrowing inning in the sixth. He loaded the bases with no outs and gave up a run on a sacrifice fly by Luke Bolka, who persevered through an 11-pitch at bat to cut U.Va.'s lead to 4-3.
After facing Bolka, Jones gave way with one out and runners remaining at first and second base to right-handed pitcher Tyler Shambora, who got two groundouts to end the inning.
"I thought we were really fortunate to have given up only three runs...going into the ninth inning," O'Connor said.
With ECU inching closer, Smith and Cody gave U.Va.'s bullpen some breathing room in the eighth inning.
He sent a 1-1 offering from Bridges over the right field wall for a solo home run to put U.Va. up 5-3. Cody added a sacrifice fly to score Pinero later in the inning to extend U.Va.'s lead to 6-3, but it wasn't enough.
"Right now, it's pretty surreal," Yorgen said. "I think I've blacked out for the last 30 minutes."
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642