June 21, 2015
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OMAHA, Neb. — To put into perspective the improbability of the University of Virginia baseball team’s postseason run, turn to the NCAA record book.
If the Cavaliers win the College World Series by defeating Vanderbilt in the best-of-three championship series, they will finish the season with 44 victories. That would be the fewest for an NCAA champion since Ohio State (27-6-1) in 1966.
When the calendar flipped from April to May, Virginia’s record was 27-18, and only the most optimistic fans would have predicted a return to Omaha, Neb., for head coach Brian O’Connor’s team, let alone a second straight appearance in the CWS Finals. Yet that’s where the Wahoos, last year’s NCAA runners-up, find themselves after rallying to edge Florida 5-4 on Saturday night at TD Ameritrade Park.
“It definitely was a different journey than last year,” pitcher Brandon Waddell said. “But every road’s different. Every story’s different.”
In 2014, UVa entered the 64-team NCAA tournament as the No. 3 overall seed. This year, the `Hoos needed a strong finish to the regular season simply to make the NCAA tourney, and they were seeded No. 3 in the four-team regional at Lake Elsinore, Calif. But five games later — victories over Southern California (twice), San Diego State and Maryland (twice) — the Cavaliers were headed to Omaha for the fourth time in O’Connor’s 12 seasons as their head coach.
“They’re all special, certainly,” O’Connor said. “But this one’s different … [What] this team has navigated and what they’ve been through to get here is really, really special and memorable.”
The CWS Finals will match Virginia (42-23) and Vanderbilt (50-19) for the second straight season. Game 1, which ESPN will broadcast, is Monday at 8 p.m. ET.
“I’m happy for Virginia,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said Saturday night. “They played very well today. And it should be a heck of a series between them and Vanderbilt.”
In last year’s CWS Finals, the teams split the first two games before the Commodores prevailed 3-2 in the third to capture their first NCAA title.
That Virginia team won 53 games and was loaded with players now playing professional baseball. O’Connor’s current team has had to overcome a series of significant injuries, and nothing has come easily for these Cavaliers. Still, they’re 8-1 in the NCAA tournament, the lone loss coming Friday against Florida, which staved off elimination with a 10-5 win.
In each of those eight victories, UVa has scored the eventual winning run in the sixth inning or later. In Omaha, the Cavaliers have won 5-3 over Arkansas, 1-0 over Florida and, now, 5-4 over Florida.
“I think we’re a really tough team. We’re really resilient,” said senior Kenny Towns, who in the seventh inning Saturday night drove in freshman Ernie Clement with the run that made it 5-4.
Waddell said: “We know what we’re capable of. We have confidence. No matter what the score of the game is, how late the game is, who’s up, we have confidence in everybody.”
A junior left-hander, Waddell started Virginia’s first game against Florida, last Monday night, and allowed only two singles before giving way to closer Josh Sborz in the seventh. Sborz, a junior right-hander, faced six batters and recorded six outs to earn his 15th save of the season.
On only four days rest, Waddell started the decisive game against the Gators (52-18). It was his 52nd career start, which broke the program record he shared with former UVa great Danny Hultzen. Waddell, who gave up two home runs, wasn’t as sharp Saturday as in his first encounter with Florida. Still, on a night when the Cavaliers planned to use only two pitchers, he worked five innings before Sborz replaced him with a runner on first and none out in the sixth.
“I really approached it the same as any start,” Waddell said. “I wasn’t going to use shorter rest as an excuse for something else that could happen … I truly wanted the ball for the game.”
This Virginia pitching staff is not nearly as deep as most of its predecessors, and Sborz was not on a short-relief assignment when he entered Saturday night. The Cavaliers needed him to record 12 outs.
“It was his ball game,” UVa pitching coach Karl Kuhn said.
Sborz stumbled briefly, walking the first batter he faced and then later giving up an RBI single that pulled Florida to 4-4. But with runners on first and third and the Gators threatening, Sborz regained the dominant form that has become his trademark this postseason. He fanned Dalton Guthrie for the second out and then retired Ryan Larson on a groundout.
“He’s done it all year,” Kuhn said of Sborz, whose earned-run average is 1.70. “He wants it. He wants the ball. Every time I ask him, he’s honest with me.”
In the top of the seventh, with two outs and the teams still tied 4-4, Florida star Harrison Bader stole second to move into scoring position. But Sborz struck out cleanup hitter JJ Schwarz, who belted 18 home runs this season, and the `Hoos rode that momentum into the bottom half of the inning.
After a leadoff single by Clement, fellow freshman Adam Haseley, who had come to the plate looking to bunt, drew a four-pitch walk. Daniel Pinero, the leading hitter in this CWS with a .571 batting average, advanced the runners with a sacrifice bunt, and Florida, to its dismay, found itself facing sophomore slugger Matt Thaiss.
In the first, Thaiss had crushed his team-leading 10th home run over the fence in right field. In the third, he lined out to deep center, and in the fifth he singled. This time, in a pick-your-poison move, the Gators chose to intentionally walk Thaiss, bringing up Towns, 7 for 8 this season with the bases loaded.
“When you think about it it’s a smart play,” Towns said. “It’s to set up the double play. And obviously Matt’s been a very dangerous hitter and helps us out a lot. So I wouldn’t take any offense [from] it or think anything of it. I was just happy to be able to get an opportunity to drive in another run.”
Towns, who after Friday’s loss shaved off the mustache he’d been sporting in the NCAA tournament, has become known as “Mr. June” among UVa fans for his postseason heroics, and his legend grew Saturday night. In the fifth, he hammered a two-run double down the left-field line to put the Cavaliers back on top, 4-3, and this time he brought home Clement with a sacrifice fly to deep right.
One of only two seniors on the UVa roster, Towns now has 33 hits and 27 RBI in 29 NCAA tournament games: all program records.
“He’s gotten so many big hits for us,” O’Connor said. “He’s come through so many times, especially in this postseason. There’s a lot of guys you’d want up, but certainly you know the pride that he has in this uniform, the pride that he has in this program, and he’s going to go up there and get his money’s worth and he’s going to be prepared to give himself a chance to succeed.”
Towns said: “I have a lot of confidence in myself in those situations, [partly because] we have really good at-bats leading up to me that put me in those positions to be successful. So I kind of just roll off them. Danny [Pinero] and Matty Thaiss today had some great quality at-bats before, and they were able to put me in situations where it’s easy to be successful.”
Waddell said: “We’re good top to bottom. I’ve got confidence in everybody, and everyone’s up there to make a clutch hit and get on base.”
“It’s everyone in the lineup,” he said. “You can’t give Kenny all the credit, because we’ve had so many big hits in the last three weeks, but obviously when Kenny gets up, it’s a little more calming, because he’s a senior and he’s been through it so much. That just helps everyone when we have a great guy in the lineup like that.”
In the top of the ninth, with chants of “U-V-A! U-V-A!” spurring him on, Sborz retired the first two batters before giving up a two-strike single to Bader, who finished the game 4 for 5.
The Gators’ hopes rose, but with Sborz on the mound the ‘Hoos had no need to worry. Second baseman Clement fielded a grounder off the bat of Richie Martin and flipped the ball to shortstop Pinero for the force, extending the Cavaliers’ stay in the city of O’Connor’s birth for at least two more games.
“This group has a lot of pride,” O’Connor said. “They have a lot of pride in playing for each other. They’re going to give it everything they’ve got. They’re going to be prepared. And it’s been a lot of fun to coach.”