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June 25, 2014

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OMAHA, Neb. — Three hours before the most important start of his baseball career, at the UVa team hotel, Brandon Waddell stood inside a lobby teeming with fans, signing autographs for children and posing for photos with family members, unperturbed by the commotion around him.

Across the street at TD Ameritrade Park, the sophomore from Houston showed even more poise Tuesday night before a crowd of 24,308 and an ESPN audience. In a game Virginia had to win extend its season, Waddell was magnificent, scattering five hits in a 7-2 victory over Vanderbilt.

“Hell of a performance,” said UVa’s All-America closer, junior Nick Howard.

This is the Cavaliers’ third trip to the College World Series — they were also here in 2009 and 2011 — and not until Tuesday night had one of their pitchers thrown a complete game in Omaha. Waddell, a left-hander who relies on guile as much as on power, struck out five and walked three, and only one of the runs he allowed was earned.

On a night when the Wahoos’ cheering section at the stadium included UVa president Teresa Sullivan, Waddell retired 13 of the Commodores’ final 15 batters in his longest appearance as a college player.

“He basically suffocated our offense for most of the night, particularly as the game went on,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said.

Waddell’s timing was impeccable. And now the `Hoos, who were ranked No. 1 nationally for much of the regular season, are in position to win their first NCAA title in this sport.

“I really couldn’t be more proud of our club,” head coach Brian O’Connor said late Tuesday night. “Facing elimination, facing the end of the season, you have somebody like Waddell step up and pitch like that, and our offensive ball club, you know, just would not be denied. Now all it comes down to tomorrow night.”

In the final game of the best-of-three CWS Finals, UVa (53-15) will be the home team against Vandy (50-21) on Wednesday night. ESPN will televise the game, which starts at 8 o’clock Eastern.

“You’re going to try and look at it as just any other game, but no one’s naïve,” junior third baseman Kenny Towns said. “They know what game it is. But I think regardless of the circumstances we’re going to go out there and just make sure we play Virginia baseball, like we have been this whole time down here.”

One of this series’ major storylines has been the offense of the Cavaliers, who totaled 15 hits on Monday and 13 on Tuesday. In Game 1, however, a subpar start by Virginia’s All-America pitcher, Nathan Kirby, helped the Commodores build a 9-2 lead in the third inning, and they held on for a 9-8 victory.

“A little bit different of a starting pitching performance tonight than last night,” O’Connor said after Game 2. “Brandon Waddell was just terrific. It seemed like after the first four innings he really settled in and did a terrific job of mixing all of his pitches, kind of keeping their hitters off balance, and certainly we had another really good offensive night.”

Four players had at least two hits for UVa: Towns (3 for 5), sophomore right-fielder Joe McCarthy (3 for 5), junior second baseman Branden Cogswell (2 for 4) and junior center-fielder Brandon Downes (2 for 5).

In the sixth inning, Downes capped a three-run sixth for the Cavaliers with a triple that scored Towns and made it 4-2. The triple came off Vanderbilt starter Tyler Beede, the 14th player selected in this month’s Major League Baseball draft, and it was the second in two nights for Downes, who struggled with a wrist injury during the regular season but is hitting .333 in the NCAA tournament.

The Kansas City Royals drafted Downes in the seventh round on June 6.

“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. It’s rewarding him now and rewarding his teammates.”

Downes said: “I’m just trying to win a national championship and do anything I can to help the team.”

In the seventh inning Tuesday night, Towns broke the game open with a two-run single that pushed Virginia’s lead to 6-2. In the top of the ninth, sophomore designated hitter John La Prise knocked in the game’s final run with a single that scored McCarthy from second.

Waddell welcomed the extra run support but didn’t necessarily need it. After a few rough moments in the early going — Vandy scored in the second and fourth innings — Waddell “settled in later on in the game,” he said.

Count Vanderbilt’s head coach among No. 20’s admirers.

“The kid’s throwing a good fastball,” Corbin said. “He’s throwing it both sides of the plate. He’s decelerating the baseball with a changeup and throwing the breaking ball. He’s a three-pitch, four-pitch guy. You really, really have to be able to stay inside the baseball and use the other side of the field. He didn’t allow us to do that.”

The Commodores’ hitters may not find the going much easier Wednesday night. Two of Virginia’s top pitchers — Howard (2-1, 1.77 ERA) and senior right-hander Artie Lewicki (8-1, 1.44) — have yet to appear in the CWS Finals, and they’re eager to contribute Wednesday night.

“Who wouldn’t be chomping at the bit to get a national championship?” said Howard, whom the Cincinnati Reds drafted with the 19th pick of the first round June 5.

Look for Lewicki and Howard to come out of the bullpen again Wednesday night. O’Connor indicated late Tuesday night that sophomore right-hander Josh Sborz is likely to start Game 3 for the `Hoos.

“But certainly not having touched Lewicki or Howard in these first two ball games is important,” O’Connor said. “It gives us an ability to … chop the game up tomorrow or do whatever we need to do to win the game. Those two guys have been great for us all year.”

Sborz has been great in this NCAA tournament. In two starts, he’s 2-0 and has not allowed an earned run.

“It’s incredible, just knowing that any guy we throw out there tomorrow we’re going to have complete confidence in,” Towns said. “They’ve come through for us all year, and I think those are the guys you want to have the ball in the last game.”

The magnitude of the opportunity in front of UVa “hasn’t really hit me yet,” Downes said Tuesday night, but he and his teammates will have plenty of time Wednessday to ponder the implications of Game 3.

“We’ve been talking about it the whole entire year,” Downes said. “We always say, `1,186′ ” — the distance in miles from Charlottesville to Omaha — “and we always say, `Omaha,’ after our fall conditioning and winter conditioning [workouts]. I’m just really excited to finally be in this situation, and hopefully we can end our season on a high note and win that last game.”

Howard said: “This is why we play the game. We’re one of two teams to play in the final college baseball game of the year, and this is what we’ve worked for all year.”

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