June 16, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

OMAHA, Neb. — It was past 1:15 a.m. local time Tuesday when the University of Virginia baseball team arrived back at its hotel after a short bus ride from TD Ameritrade Park.

Cheering fans greeted the players and coaches in the lobby, and the applause was much-deserved. The Wahoos’ improbable run in the NCAA tournament continues, and they’re now a victory away from the College World Series championship series.

UVa opened the CWS on Saturday afternoon with a 5-3 victory over Arkansas. Two nights later, the Cavaliers defeated another, more formidable, team from the SEC: Florida, the No. 4 seed in the NCAA tourney.

Against an opponent that had won 10 straight games and was coming off a 15-3 rout of Miami (Fla.), Virginia pitchers Brandon Waddell and Josh Sborz combined on a two-hit shutout. The `Hoos (41-22) managed only one run against the Gators, but that was all they needed as they improved to 7-0 in this NCAA tournament.

That marked only the third time Florida, which came in averaging 10.4 hits and seven runs per game, has been shut out this season.

“We battled,” Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We just came up a little bit short tonight. But congratulations to Virginia. They earned it. We didn’t give them anything.”

Waddell, a junior left-hander who has saved some of his best performances for Omaha, started and allowed two hits in seven innings, one an infield single. During one stretch, he retired 12 straight batters.

“It was masterful,” UVa pitching coach Karl Kuhn said of the performance, which lowered Waddell’s earned-run average in 23 career innings in CWS games to 0.78.

“The kid was unbelievable,” Virginia sophomore catcher Matt Thaiss said of Waddell, whom Pittsburgh selected in the fifth round of the recent Major League Baseball draft.

Sborz, a junior right-hander, dazzled as well after replacing Waddell in the top of the eighth with runners on first and third and none out.

The `Hoos led 1-0, but it seemed inevitable that Florida (50-17) would at least tie the game. But Sborz, after a comebacker from Harrison Bader knocked the glove off his left hand, kept his composure, picked up the ball and alertly threw to second for the force out.

“It’s one of those things, if the ball gets through it’s a totally different ball game,” O’Sullivan said.

The next batter, Richie Martin, lined out to second baseman Ernie Clement, and then Josh Tobias grounded out, and suddenly the Cavaliers (41-22) were three outs from the championship game of their double-elimination CWS bracket.

In the ninth, those outs came in rapid succession, as Sborz, whom the Dodgers selected between the second and third rounds of the MLB draft, retired the Gators in order. And now the Cavaliers, last year’s NCAA runners-up, can sit back and wait to see which team they’ll face next.

Virginia won’t play again until Friday afternoon, when Kuhn and head coach Brian O’Connor will have the option of bringing back No. 1 starter Connor Jones, a sophomore right-hander who worked six innings Saturday against the Razorbacks.

In an elimination game, Florida (50-17) will meet Miami (50-16) on Wednesday at 8 p.m. (EST). The Hurricanes won the first elimination game of this CWS, defeating Arkansas 4-3 on Monday night.

“We’ll take it one pitch at a time, one game at a time,” said O’Sullivan, a former UVa player and assistant coach, “and hopefully get ourselves back and have another chance to play Virginia on Friday.”

Virginia will meet the Florida-Miami winner Friday at 3 p.m. (EST). If the Cavaliers win that game, they’ll move on to the best-of-three CWS championship series. If they lose, there will be a rematch Saturday, with the winner advancing to the CWS Finals.

“We’re just going to sit on this for a little while,” Kuhn said early Tuesday. “We’re going to enjoy this tonight, and we’ll worry about Friday in the next day or two.”

UVa’s game with Florida, scheduled to start Monday at 8 p.m. (EST), didn’t begin until 10:10 p.m., because of the rain that pelted this city Sunday night and Monday morning.

Waddell wasn’t as sharp in the first inning as he would be later, and Florida had runners on first and second with two outs. But Waddell retired Buddy Reed on a groundout, and the Gators didn’t threaten again until the eighth.

“In the first inning I think I was just trying to do too much with it,” Waddell said. “I was trying to put a little bit too much behind things, make pitches move more than they normally do. So I think my command kind of fluttered a little bit there. After I got out of the first inning I was able to take a step back, kind of breathe, kind of get my head right again, and go back to what our plan was and try to get some early outs.”

Virginia had little success against Florida starter A.J. Puk, a sophomore left-hander, until the bottom of the sixth. After retiring the previous nine batters, Puk gave up a one-out single to Thaiss. Senior Kenny Towns followed with a sharply hit single down the left-field line, and then an infield single by freshman Pavin Smith loaded the bases.

Florida switched pitchers, bringing in right-hander Taylor Lewis. UVa junior Robbie Coman smacked Lewis’ first offering into right-center field for a sacrifice fly that scored Thaiss from third.

“He was ready to go,” Thaiss said of Coman. “They made a pitching change, and a lot of guys, when [opponents] make a pitching change, they would take the first pitch and not be ready to go and maybe go down 0-1. Robbie was ready from the get-go, and he got the job done for us, and that won us the game.”

It was nearly midnight in Omaha when Waddell gave way to Sborz, leaving to a standing ovation from the UVa fans in the crowd of 19,544. The game’s most memorable sequence followed moments later, started by the wicked line drive Sborz was fortunate to deflect with his glove.

“In the winter, Thaiss gave me some great practice by hitting me in the head,” Sborz recalled with a smile at the postgame press conference, “so I had great practice with that. But it was basically all reaction, and from there I got lucky throwing it to second.”

In practice one day at Davenport Field, Thaiss recalled, Sborz “threw a fastball, and I hit it a lot harder than that kid [from Florida] did … It actually hit [Sborz] in the shoulder and the face. I thought I killed him.”

And so when Sborz was on the receiving end of a similar comebacker Monday night, Thaiss said, “I went out to the mound, and I joked, and I said, `You’re lucky I wasn’t hitting, or that would have hit you in the face.’ ”

The game was halted briefly as O’Connor, Kuhn and athletic trainer Brian McGuire came to the mound, along with Virginia’s infielders, to check on Sborz. As Sborz exchanged smiles and laughs with his teammates, it became clear that he was fine.

“I was smiling because I was happy I didn’t get hit in the head,” Sborz said, flashing his trademark grin.

There were plenty of smiles among the Cavaliers after their latest victory. Asked afterward if he would have thought one run would be enough to defeat the Gators, O’Connor did not hesitate.

“No way,” he said.

Still, O’Connor said, the Cavaliers’ coaches were confident they “had the right guy on the mound tonight.”

In the second game of last year’s CWS championship series, Waddell had thrown a complete game in a victory over Vanderbilt, and he’s “risen to the occasion many, many times for this team over the last three years,” O’Connor said. “And we were very, very confident that he was going to give us a quality start. But I don’t know anybody would have predicted that … this game would be a 1-0 ball game.”

Against the high-scoring Gators, Thaiss admitted, “I didn’t think one [run] would do it, but it got the job done.”

Thaiss said he noticed in the bullpen before the game that Waddell was poised to deliver another gem.

“When big games come around, he’s ready,” Thaiss said. “He’s ready every day, but I could tell today he had a little more juice flowing.”

O’Sullivan said: “Sometimes you’ve just got to credit the pitcher … He was on tonight.”

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