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June 24, 2014

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OMAHA, Neb. — To capture its first NCAA baseball title this week, UVa will have to do it the hard way now and win back-to-back games against Vanderbilt at the College World Series.

That prospect didn’t faze the Cavaliers late Monday night at TD Ameritrade Park. As disappointed as they were by the outcome of the opening game of the CWS Finals, the Wahoos knew their 9-8 loss was primarily the result of a calamitous half-inning.

“We have all the confidence in the world that we’re going to come back tomorrow and play a great ball game and then the turn the [page] on to Wednesday and do the same thing,” junior catcher Nate Irving said outside UVa’s locker room. “Our offense has a ton of confidence right now, and we have a ton of confidence in our pitching staff as well. They’ve done the job for us all year.”

Relievers Whit Mayberry and Austin Young did the job for Virginia (52-15) on Monday night, holding Vandy (50-20) without a run over the final six innings. But the Cavaliers’ ace, Nathan Kirby, suffered through the worst performance of his college career, and the Commodores capitalized on the sophomore left-hander’s control problems.

A first-team All-American who pitched brilliantly June 15 in UVa’s first game in Omaha, Kirby walked five batters in the top of the third inning Monday night — three with the bases loaded — before head coach Brian O’Connor summoned Mayberry out of the bullpen with one out.

“I just couldn’t find my release point,” said Kirby, whose five walks were a career high. “It hadn’t happened all year, but it happened tonight.”

O’Connor said: “Nathan Kirby has done the job all year long for this team, and I thought he was pretty sharp the first couple of innings, and the third inning it just kind of came unraveled.”

Mayberry, after inducing a pop-up for the second out, hit a batter and then gave up a three-run single to Tyler Campbell, the Commodores’ No. 9 hitter. By the time Mayberry got the final out, Vandy had scored nine runs (on only three hits) and sent 13 batters to the plate. Campbell had two doubles in the inning.

Kirby’s woes were unexpected, but with pitchers sometimes “that just happens, and it kind of came up out nowhere,” O’Connor said. “We did the best job that we could to try to get Mayberry ready [in the bullpen] as quick as we could, but we kind of got jumped, and it’s hard.”

Irving said: “It was tough, because when a guy gets into a bad rhythm like that, you want to slow it down or you want to speed it up. It seemed like we tried slowing it down and it didn’t work, and we tried speeding it up and it didn’t work, and we just couldn’t find that happy medium to be able to work quickly, throw strikes and get ahead of hitters.”

Before Monday night, the `Hoos had not allowed more than four runs in an inning — or eight runs in a game — this season.

“It was just too much to overcome,” O’Connor said.

And yet the `Hoos nearly pulled off an epic comeback. After an impromptu pep talk from their head coach in the dugout, they rallied for three runs in the third and two more in the fifth to pull to 9-7.

“I just reminded them of what they play for,” O’Connor said, “that they need to have a lot of pride, and that they need to be proud that they play for the University of Virginia, and they’re going to show the rest of this game what they’re capable of doing and the heart that they have.

“I didn’t need to say anything, quite frankly, because I know what they’re made of, and I know they weren’t going to quit and pack it in. I knew they were going to keep fighting, and they responded and we had a chance, but just not quite enough.”

Virginia closed to 9-8 in the eighth, and it would have been 9-9 had a hard-hit ball off the bat of sophomore Joe McCarthy not glanced off reliever John Kilichowski’s foot and bounced to shortstop Vince Conde, who was able to keep a second run from scoring.

As frustrating as that play was for the Cavaliers, it didn’t compare to slugger Mike Papi’s fifth-inning at-bat. With two runners on and two outs, Papi, who leads the team with 11 home runs, crushed a fastball to deep center field.

“I was jumping up and down, and I thought it was gone,” said UVa junior Brandon Downes, who had started the rally that inning with a two-out triple.

So did Irving.

“I was in the dugout, and I yelled, `Get out!’ as soon it was off the bat,” he said.

Alas for the `Hoos, Vandy’s John Norwood caught the ball on the warning track, about 380 feet from home plate. So it went at times for the Cavaliers on a night when they outhit the Commodores 15-6.

“I knew I hit it well,” Papi said. “Obviously, not well enough. I hit it to the wrong part of the park. It’s pretty deep out there.”

Afterward, the Commodores acknowledged how close they had come to blowing a seven-run lead.

“We’re fortunate to win that game, for sure,” head coach Tim Corbin said. “No one could have scripted that particular game, and if they said they could they’re lying. I don’t think you could have called a nine-run inning.”

Game 2 will begin Tuesday at 8 p.m. Eastern and be shown on ESPN. Sophomore left-hander Brandon Waddell (9-3, 2.57 ERA) will start for UVa, the visiting team, and Vandy is expected to go with junior right-hander Tyler Beede (8-7, 3.80).

Thanks to Mayberry and Young, each of whom worked 3.1 innings Monday night, Virginia will have multiple pitching options out of the bullpen in Game 2, most notably senior Artie Lewicki (8-1, 1.44) and junior Nick Howard (2-1, 1.77), an All-America closer. For Young, it was his first appearance of the NCAA tournament, and he struck out four and gave up only one hit.

“They’ve done that for us all year,” Irving said. “With Whit, it’s been well-documented, he’s one of the great battlers that we’ve ever had on the mound. I don’t know how else to describe it. But he kept us in a great position. He kept their offense quiet and let our offense wake up and get us back in the game. Same with A.Y. I’m really happy for him to be able to get out there and shut them down like he did.”

For the Cavaliers, junior Branden Cogswell and freshman Daniel Pinero had three hits apiece, and juniors Derek Fisher and Downes and sophomore John La Prise had two each. Fisher and Downes also had two RBI apiece. The first seven of Virginia’s runs came with two outs.

“I’m really, really proud of our guys,” O’Connor said. “The fight in us just did not stop.”

Downes said: “We have a special set of guys on this team, and whatever happens we’re not going to give up.”

Another opportunity comes Tuesday night for the Cavaliers.

“All year after losses we’ve bounced back, and we’d like to think of it more as a learning experience for us and try to take something from it instead of kind of dwelling on it,” Papi said. “Because the past is the past and you can’t go back. But we definitely showed a lot of heart today in trying to win each frame and going out there and scratch some more runs off.”

O’Connor, of course, would prefer to be heading into Game 2 with an opportunity to win the NCAA title. “But this is why it’s a national championship series rather than a national championship game,” he said.

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