June 19, 2015
OMAHA, Neb. — After losing for the first time in the NCAA tournament, the University of Virginia baseball team remains one victory away from the College World Series championship series. The Cavaliers’ margin for error, however, is gone.
With an opportunity Friday afternoon to win their bracket and clinch a berth in the best-of-three CWS Finals, the Wahoos fell 10-5 to Florida before a crowd of 19,015 at TD Ameritrade Park. That sets up a winner-take-all rematch between the `Hoos (41-23) and the Gators (52-17) on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. ESPN will televise the game.
Defending NCAA champion Vanderbilt (50-19) will face the UVa-Florida winner in the CWS Finals, starting Monday night.
Virginia, the visitor Friday, will be the home team Saturday.
“That’s a good thing,” UVa coach Brian O’Connor said. “Hopefully we get a chance to make that a factor.”
This will be the teams’ third meeting in less than a week. In the first, Virginia won 1-0 late Monday night as starter Brandon Waddell and closer Josh Sborz limited the Gators to two hits, both singles.
O’Connor said Friday that he and pitching coach Karl Kuhn had not decided who’ll start Saturday. If it’s not sophomore right-hander Connor Jones (7-2, 3.05 earned-run average), the choice will be Waddell (4-5, 3.86), a junior left-hander, both excellent options.
“I feel good about tomorrow,” O’Connor said.
Whichever way the Cavaliers go, they’ll take comfort from the knowledge that Sborz (5-2, 1.80), a junior right-hander, is well-rested in the bullpen. In six appearances in this NCAA tourney, Sborz has not allowed an earned run.
“He will absolutely be ready for extended duty,” O’Connor said, “and we’ll just kind of see where the game takes us.”
Jones could have started Friday, but O’Connor chose to give the ball to Nathan Kirby, a junior left-hander who had not pitched in a game since suffering a lat injury April 17 against ACC rival Miami.
After weighing his options, O’Connor said, he decided that starting Kirby, a two-time All-ACC selection, on Friday would benefit the Cavaliers next week should they reach the CWS Finals.
UVa, last year’s NCAA runner-up, is “here to try to win a national championship,” O’Connor said. “Certain guys are going to have to rise up for that to happen.”
O’Connor said he decided during the week that Jones, who started against Arkansas in Virginia’s CWS opener last Saturday, would not appear in more than two games in Omaha.
Given that, O’Connor said, had the `Hoos clinched Friday, Jones would have been available to start “Game 1 of the championship series. So in no way was I going to pitch him today and then bring him back potentially on a Wednesday. So once that decision was made, I just felt like this was the right move, and I was really confident that Nathan would get us off to the right start and a handful of guys would have to do the job out of the pen.”
“I was really concerned when I saw Kirby’s first couple of innings,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “He kept flipping change-ups in there for strikes and his command looked really good.”
In the third, however, trouble arose for Kirby, whom the Milwaukee Brewers selected with the 40th pick in this month’s Major League Baseball draft.
Florida “stayed back on the ball and took advantage of a couple of pitches that I left down the middle of the plate,” Kirby said.
Back-to-back one-out singles gave the Gators runners on first and third. Then Harrison Bader’s groundout to second, on a two-strike pitch, pushed across Florida’s first run in more than 11 innings against UVa this week.
“He didn’t hit it hard,” said O’Sullivan, a former Virginia player and assistant, “but it got us on the board for the first run, and that kind of got us going. If he strikes out there, who knows what happens?”
Richie Martin stroked an RBI double, Josh Tobias followed with an RBI single, and suddenly it was 3-1. That was all for Kirby, who gave way to sophomore right-hander Alec Bettinger.
Kirby, who threw 53 pitches, allowed four hits, walked one and struck out one in his first appearance in nine weeks.
“I was really happy with the way Nathan threw the ball,” O’Connor said. “Off for eight weeks, essentially, that’s like a guy going out for his first start in spring training, and I thought it was pretty darn good on this stage against a tremendous opponent offensively. So I was really, really proud of him. He had two outs [in the third], and we were really a pitch away from it being very, very minimal damage.”
Had Kirby been “able to throw up a goose egg in that third inning,” O’Connor said, “then we get him out of there and you chop up the game [with relievers], starting in the fourth, and maybe the result’s different at the end. But it didn’t happen, and I knew we were going to have to take some chances in this ball game. It is what it is, and we’ll move on to tomorrow.”
By the time Bettinger recorded the final out in the third, the Gators led 4-1. They stretched their lead to 9-1 with five more runs in the sixth. “We have a tendency to have big innings,” O’Sullivan said. “In order to have big innings you have to have a consistent lineup, 1 through 9.”
The Gators, who totaled 11 hits Friday, have scored at least 10 runs in three of their four games at this College World Series. “They have the ability to score from different spots in the lineup,” O’Connor said. “They’ve got power. They’ve got speed. They’ve got a really, really nice club.”
The `Hoos refused to go quietly after falling behind 9-1. They rallied for three runs in the seventh, Kevin Doherty scoring on a Thaiss sacrifice fly and then Ernie Clement and Daniel Pinero coming home on Kenny Towns’ two-out double. In the eighth, Doherty’s sacrifice fly drove in Robbie Coman.
Virginia, which had five hits against Florida on Monday, doubled that total Friday. Pinero, a sophomore, was 2 for 4, and Haseley, a freshman who had been hitless in the CWS, went 2 for 5. Pinero (6 for 11) is batting .545 in three games in Omaha.
“I think we went out there and swung the bats pretty well today,” Towns said Friday. “But as [O’Connor] mentioned, we really didn’t get those big hits in those big situations. But I think everyone is swinging the bats with confidence, so I think everyone will feel good going into tomorrow.”
Florida, which received a superb outing Friday from sophomore right-hander Logan Shore, who worked 6.1 innings, will start Dane Dunning or A.J. Puk against Virginia on Saturday.
Dunning, a sophomore right-hander, is 5-2 this season, with a 3.88 ERA. Puk, who started (and took the loss) Monday night against UVa, is 9-4, with a 3.81 ERA.
“We’ve got confidence in both,” O’Sullivan said. “But it’s all hands on deck tomorrow. We’re not going to hold back.”