Wilson, the Virginia senior right-hander, answered the call on short rest and delivered 7 2/3 strong innings Thursday night as the Cavaliers ousted California, 8-1, at the College World Series and turned their sights to college baseball's version of the Final Four.
Virginia moves on to play South Carolina on Friday at 7 p.m. ET. Florida faces Vanderbilt Friday at 2 p.m. ET. The Cavaliers and Commodores must win two more games to reach the best-of-three championship series, while the Gators and Gamecocks have to win just once to play in the title series, which begins Monday.
Virginia prevailed against the Bears largely because of Wilson's efforts over the past four days. On Sunday, Wilson worked 2 1/3 innings in relief against the Bears and picked up an opening-round victory. He came back from that 39-pitch outing on three days' rest and was in complete control as a starter. Wilson allowed just five hits and didn't issue a walk.
"I had the same mind-set today that I've had all year," said Wilson, who is 10-0 this season. "I wanted to go out there and set a tone for our ballclub."
By the time Wilson left the game with two on and two outs in the eighth, Virginia (56-11) was cruising with a 6-0 lead. Wilson skipped over the first-base line on his way to the dugout and heard the Cavaliers fans chanting his name as he accepted congratulations from his teammates and coaches.
"In all my years of coaching, this guy is as good of a leader as I've ever seen," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "He's a warrior out there."
Wilson was drafted in the 35th round by the Reds in 2010, but chose to return to Virginia for his senior year. He not only improved his Draft slot significantly, but also put himself in position to create some lifelong memories at the College World Series.
Wilson has pitched this year in the shadow of Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen, taken No. 2 overall by the Mariners in the 2011 Draft. But whenever the Cavaliers have appeared to wobble off the championship course, Wilson has often been the pitcher to point them in the right direction.
"I was ecstatic just to be out there," Wilson said. "It gives our team a chance to build some momentum going into the rest of the tournament."
O'Connor wasn't ready to say late Thursday night that Hultzen would be his Friday starter. The Virginia coach has to look at the big picture, with the Cavaliers needing two wins over South Carolina on consecutive days to advance. O'Connor said he would meet with his coaching staff back at the hotel and announce his starter on Friday morning.
California coach Dave Esquer only wishes he had that type of decision to make.
The Bears had become an inspiring story in their Cinderella run to the CWS. Omaha embraced a Cal baseball program that had been in jeopardy of elimination earlier this year before a late fundraising push saved it. But now the Bears are done after a subpar night of pitching, hitting and defense.
A third-inning throwing error by California starter Dixon Anderson on a bunt play led to two runs, and the Cavaliers broke it open with four in the sixth. The score became 3-0 when Kenny Swab's line single to center got past center fielder Darrel Matthews and rolled to the wall, enabling Swab to circle the bases.
"Virginia played a heck of a ballgame and deserved to win," Esquer said. "You've got to be on your game to beat them and tonight we weren't."
Still, the Bears (38-23) head home to Northern California with their heads held high.
"This was an experience they'll never forget," Esquer said. "Those things don't go away. Fifteen or 20 years down the line, we'll be honoring this team for what they accomplished. They've learned a lot of lessons about perseverence and strength."
With Wilson going 7 2/3 innings, it sets the Cavaliers up with a plethora of fresh bullpen arms to potentially throw at South Carolina over a two-day span if they can get that far.
"That was huge," O'Connor said of Wilson's long outing, which required an economical 94 pitches. "When you save everybody you possibly can, it helps your chances of advancing. Hopefully, we'll see the benefit of that [Friday] and possibly the next day."
Robert Falkoff is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.