One strike away.
Those three words will haunt the 2011 UC Irvine baseball team, much the same way "three outs away" provided a similarly painful reminder in 2008 that no trip to Omaha is secure until the 27th out is recorded in the second win of an NCAA Super Regional.
UCI came within one pitch of upsetting No. 1 national seed Virginia in Game 3 of their Super Regional, winning the best-of-three series and earning the program's second trip to the College World Series on Monday at the Cavaliers' Davenport Field.
Instead, Virginia (54-10), which had two outs and nobody on against All-American pitcher Matt Summers, rallied for two runs and a 3-2 victory that deflated not only those in Anteaters' uniforms, but all of 'Eater Nation.
"When you get that close, it's mentally painful and disappointing," UCI Coach Mike Gillespie, reached by phone in Charlottesville, said. "The players are just devastated. The time will come when everybody will realize that they really did well and they really competed and they should be proud of how well they played and the year they had … I'm certainly not articulate enough to have something to say that makes a difference."
UCI (43-18) had battled for leads of 1-0 and 2-1, the latter coming in the top of the ninth against the No. 1 pitching staff in the nation's near-perfect closer, Branden Kline.
Sean Madigan led off the ninth with a single, advanced to third when catcher John Hicks' throw to second base trying to get a force out on Brian Hernandez's sacrifice bunt sailed off the shortstop's glove to leave runners on the corners. Madigan scored on a double-play grounder by Drew Hillman.
Summers, who induced an inning-ending double play upon entering the game in the eighth, struck out Danny Hultzen, then induced senior center fielder Kenny Swab, whose first home run of the season tied the game in the sixth inning, to ground out to first to start the ninth.
But Hicks smacked a 1-2 pitch for a single up the middle to stave off elimination and give all but a slice of the capacity crowd of 5,050 a sliver of hope.
Junior first baseman Jared King, whose three-run homer was the crowning blow in a 6-0 opening-game victory Saturday, bounced a 1-1 pitch off the inside of Summers' left heel to put the go-ahead run on base.
Summers quickly assured Gillespie that he was fine, but did not take any practice pitches and walked pinch-hitter Reed Gragnani on four pitches to load the bases.
Gillespie paid another visit to his fiery ace starter, who was working on one day of rest after throwing five innings and 93 pitches Saturday. Gillespie elected to leave the game, and the Anteaters' fate, in the hands of the Minnesota Twins' four-round pick.
"His stuff was still good," Gillespie told the media afterward. "If it was clear to me that his stuff was no good, we would've had to make a change. We didn't have a guy that we wanted to bring into that situation."
After Virginia leadoff man Chris Taylor took a strike, he grounded a single up the middle that drove in two runs and propelled the Cavs to their second trip to Omaha in three seasons.
Virginia stormed through UCI at the Irvine Regional on its way to Omaha in 2009, one year after the Anteaters took a 7-4 lead into the ninth inning of Game 2 of the Super Regional at LSU. The Tigers rallied for five runs to win, then crushed the 'Eaters, 21-7, in Game 3 to advance.
"It's hard not to [think of Omaha]," said UCI junior shortstop D.J. Crumlich, who went three for four to account for half of the visitors' hits. "Obviously the butterflies are going. You can picture that moment. You dream about it as a little kid. One strike away is tough."
Still Crumlich, who broke a scoreless tie in the fourth when he doubled, advanced on a Madigan sacrifice and scored on Hernandez's grounder to second, credited Virginia for coming up big when it needed to.
"Obviously it was a tough loss, but we're confident that we went down with our best guy on the mound," Crumlich said. "They beat our best, so hats off to them."
Summers, who had won nine straight decisions and six straight starts before absorbing the loss Saturday, fell to 11-4.
Junior second baseman Tommy Reyes went two for three with a double and finished the series four for 10.