By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
OMAHA, Neb. — Twelve months later, they’re about to meet again, in the same city, at the same ballpark, and for the same prize: the NCAA baseball championship.
The odds of a rematch in the College World Series Finals are always slim. Of the eight teams that advanced to the CWS in 2014, for example, only three made it back to Omaha this year: Virginia, Vanderbilt and TCU. But for the second straight year, UVa (42-23) will face Vandy (50-19) in the best-of-three championship series.
The Commodores edged the Cavaliers 3-2 in the third and decisive game in Omaha last year to secure their first NCAA title.
Now comes the rematch, and for that to happen a lot “has to go right,” Vandy shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “You both have to be on opposite sides and play successful baseball in the postseason. It’s never an easy road getting here, and it’s never an easy road getting back to the finals, so credit to Virginia for playing as well as they have.”
When the 64-team NCAA tournament began last month, the Commodores’ prospects for returning to the CWS Finals looked much better than those of the Wahoos. Vandy was the No. 1 seed and host at the four-team NCAA regional in Nashville, Tenn. UVa was the No. 3 seed in Lake Elsinore, Calif.
“Our road’s certainly been a challenge,” Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor said.
For two months of the regular season — March and April — the Cavaliers essentially played .500 ball. But they surged when it mattered most and have battled their way through this NCAA tournament, winning close game after close game in compiling an 8-1 record.
The path the `Hoos followed to the CWS Finals was much different in 2014, when they were the NCAA tournament’s No. 3 overall seed and the favorite in Omaha.
“Nothing against last year,” senior third baseman Kenny Towns said Sunday, “but I think [because of] what we’ve been through this year, the ups and downs of the season, it’s a little bit more satisfying, just because where we’ve come from and how we’ve been able to have the success late in the postseason.”
O’Connor said: “We certainly haven’t … run away from anybody. We’ve just done enough, and that’s a credit to these players. This is certainly their experience. They figured out a way to get them and their teammates here to have a special experience, and we just feel very, very fortunate that we’re in this series again.”
Sophomore shortstop Daniel Pinero, who’s hitting a blistering .571 at this CWS, agreed. “We’re just happy to be here to play against [Vandy] again.”
The teams will meet Monday, Tuesday and, if necessary, Wednesday, at 8 o’clock ET each night. The Commodores haven’t played since Friday night, when they eliminated TCU, and their pitching rotation for the CWS Finals is set.
Head coach Tim Corbin said Sunday that he plans to start junior right-hander Carson Fulmer (13-2, 1.95 ERA), the SEC pitcher of the year, in Game 1 and redshirt junior left-hander Philip Pfeifer (6-4, 3.77) in Game 2.
There’s more uncertainty on the other side. O’Connor announced Sunday that sophomore right-hander Connor Jones (7-2, 3.05), who hasn’t pitched since June 13, will start Game 1.
“Past that, I really don’t know,” O’Connor said at the pre-Finals press conference.
Asked about the Cavaliers’ Game 2 starter, pitching coach Karl Kuhn smiled. “I’ll jump off that bridge when I get to it,” he said.
Virginia has played four games in Omaha. Jones started the first, a 5-3 win over Arkansas. Junior left-hander Brandon Waddell started each of UVa’s two victories over Florida, the first on June 15 and the second on Saturday night. Junior right-hander Josh Sborz has closed each of the Cavaliers’ three wins at TD Ameritrade Park.
UVa’s loss in Omaha came Friday afternoon against Florida, a game that junior left-hander Nathan Kirby started. For the two-time All-ACC selection, who suffered a lat injury April 17, it was his first appearance in nine weeks, and whether Kirby will pitch again in Omaha isn’t clear. Neither is the availability of Waddell, who threw 87 pitches Saturday night in the Cavaliers’ 5-4 win over the Gators.
This has been an especially challenging season for Kuhn, who along with associate head coach Kevin McMullan has been on the Virginia staff for all 12 of O’Connor’s seasons as head coach. Not only did the `Hoos lose Kirby, who began the year as their No. 1 starter, for more than two months, but freshman right-hander Derek Casey (4-1, 3.06), who would have been an attractive option in the NCAA tournament, suffered a season-ending elbow injury in April.
The injuries forced the coaching staff to “be very, very creative and very, very thoughtful [about] how we were going to handle this,” O’Connor said, “to give our team the best chance to win every day, but to never put one player in a compromising position. And that’s not an easy thing to do. But those guys have stepped up. And I’d say from our pitching coach, Coach Kuhn’s standpoint, this guy is really, really good at what he does. He’s very, very consistent, and this is, out of his 12 years as our pitching coach, this is hands down the best job this guy has ever done.”
“Those guys had a decision to make,” Kuhn said. “They’re not stupid. They know who went down. They know who needed to stand up and take some more innings and some bigger roles, and they did. All I did was provide the honest truth for them. That’s it. They either did or they didn’t.
“Obviously we all stand in front of them as coaches, but the credit has to go to them, because they knew what was in front of them. They knew what they had to do. If Connor and Brandon don’t step up, if Bett doesn’t step up when Josh starts and Bett closes for a little bit, and [Rosenberger] doesn’t do what he does at North Carolina, none of us are talking [in Omaha].”
Jones worked six innings against Arkansas in Virginia’s CWS opener before giving way to Sborz, who went the rest of the way and earned the victory.
“I’m really just excited to get there and pitch for my teammates, one more time [in Omaha],” Jones said Sunday. “I felt like I wasn’t quite on my A-game last start, and I’m excited to get another opportunity [Monday night].”
Kuhn said: “Connor just needs to go out and attack the zone, and I would anticipate nothing less.”
Also important, Jones knows, given the Cavaliers’ lack of pitching depth, is that he work into the second half of the game, as Waddell has done twice in Omaha.
“That’s something we’ve talked to each other about and prided ourselves on the past month and a half or so, ever since really Nate went down,” Jones said. “We’re going to have to step up and kind of carry this staff and get us through to a position where we have more flexibility. We take a lot of pride in that, and [Waddell has] done a great job these past couple weeks, and I’m trying to carry the tradition on.”
To reach the CWS Finals, the Cavaliers had to vanquish an immensely talented Florida team. Their task this week, against another SEC power, is no easier.
“It’s going to be a tall order,” O’Connor said of defeating Vandy, which is trying to become the first team to win back-to-back NCAA titles since South Carolina (2010 and ’11).
Eight Vanderbilt players were selected in this month’s Major League Baseball draft, three in the first round.
Arizona chose Swanson with the No. 1 overall pick. The Chicago White Sox picked Fulmer eighth overall, and another junior right-hander, Walker Buehler (5-2, 2.85), went 24th overall to the Dodgers. Buehler would probably start Wednesday if a third game is necessary.
Other Commodores drafted this month included third-round selections Pfeifer (Dodgers) and outfielder Rhett Wiseman (Nationals).
In 2014, a disastrous half-inning, more than anything else, derailed Virginia’s bid to become only the second ACC team to win an NCAA title in baseball. (Wake Forest was crowned in 1955.)
In the CWS Finals opener, UVa allowed nine runs in the top of the third inning. That was all the scoring the Commodores did that night, but they held on for a 9-8 victory.
Virginia dominated the second game, winning 7-2. In the finale, Vandy’s John Norwood broke a 2-2 tie with a solo home run in the top of the eighth. The Cavaliers loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the inning but couldn’t push a run across.
“It was a great series last year,” O’Connor said. “It really was. It was as competitive as it gets. Would we like to hoist that [NCAA championship] trophy some day? Sure we would. And I’m confident one day that will happen, if we continue to give ourselves the opportunity. So we’re really here just continuing to play and have another opportunity. We ‘ll see what happens.”