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June 25, 2014

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OMAHA, Neb. — The opening game of the best-of-three College World Series Finals did not yield the desired outcome for the UVa baseball team, which lost 9-8 to Vanderbilt. But the Cavaliers came away with their confidence undiminished, in large part because of their performance at the plate Monday night.

Against a well-regarded pitching staff, Virginia pounded out 15 hits at TD Ameritrade Park. Back at the team hotel that night, associate head coach Kevin McMullan talked to his wife, Sandi, about the game.

“I said, `This was the offense I thought we were going to have all year,’ ” McMullan recalled late Tuesday after another game in which UVa’s offense asserted itself.

The Wahoos totaled 13 hits, with sophomore Joe McCarthy and junior Brandon Downes collecting three apiece, in a 7-2 win over the Commodores. The teams will meet for the NCAA title Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET, and McMullan, UVa’s hitting coach, likes the direction in which his batters appear headed.

“So far, two games into this championship series we’ve been pretty consistent,” McMullan said. “We’ve had quality at-bats, we’ve made adjustments as the game’s progressed. We’ve got to continue to do it for one more game.”

From a team that won 50 games and advanced to an NCAA super regional in 2013, UVa returned eight players who hit .280 or better: Mike Papi (.381), Branden Cogswell (.346), McCarthy (.336), Nick Howard (.323), Downes (.316), Derek Fisher (.293), Kenny Towns (.290) and Nate Irving (.284).

Given that firepower, the strength of Brian O’Connor‘s 11th as UVa’s head coach was expected to be its offense. Of those eight players, however, none is hitting better this season than in 2013.

Papi and Cogswell are batting .307, McCarthy 302, Towns .283, Fisher .264, Howard .261 and Irving .242. Downes, who has been bothered by a wrist injury most of the season, is hitting .240. As a team, the `Hoos are hitting .281 this season, a significant drop from their 2013 average of .312. (Of Virginia’s regulars, sophomore John La Prise has the best batting average, .351.)

Throughout the season, though, O’Connor and McMullan remained confident that Virginia’s veterans would eventually return to form, and the coaching staff’s faith is being rewarded in the CWS Finals.

“They don’t strike out,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said Tuesday night of the Cavaliers. “They walk. They put the ball in play. They have very good approaches at the plate. It’s a tough team to pitch against.”

O’Connor said: “Certainly there is a lot of real athletic skill in that lineup, just the ability of guys to get down the line, and the pressure that that puts on infielders, through most of our lineup.

“We’ve got very much a veteran lineup. I remember back a month and a half, two months ago, Coach McMullan and I had a conversation, and we just believed, the two of us, that at some point this would all come together and we’d have a real complete lineup that we feel like we’re capable of. Fortunately it’s shown up here in Omaha, and fortunately it’s shown up in the last two ball games.”

Cogswell is 5 for 8 against Vandy. McCarthy is 4 for 9, and Towns and Downes are each 4 for 10.

Especially gratifying for his coaches has been Downes’ success at the plate this week.

“I’m so proud of him,” O’Connor said. “I really am. I think it’s been well-documented what he’s gone through this year with his wrist and everything. Like I said [in late April], he grinded through it for his team, and when you do that and you’re selfless and you continue to fight, the game comes back around to you.”

Downes, a center-fielder whom the Kansas City Royals drafted in the seventh round early this month, is “showing here in Omaha how skilled he is and how talented he is,” O’Connor said. “This guy had over 30 extra-base hits last year, and he’s a great athlete.”

McMullan said: “Any time you get guys that are banged-up and they fight through it, and now they’re getting the rewards for being a team guy and doing things right for their teammates, it’s very, very nice to see them get rewarded.”

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