June 23, 2015
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OMAHA, Neb. — Come Wednesday night, the University of Virginia baseball team hopes to be nearing the end of its second week in this city and not back in Charlottesville.
If there is to be a decisive third game in the College World Series Finals, however, UVa must win Tuesday night at TD Ameritrade Park. For a team whose pitching staff is depleted, that won’t be easy, but at least the Cavaliers have seen the last of Vanderbilt ace Carson Fulmer.
In the opening game of the best-of-three CWS Finals, which for the second straight year matches Virginia against Vandy, the junior right-hander dominated Monday night.
Fulmer, whom the Chicago White Sox selected with the eighth overall pick of this month’s Major League Baseball draft, struck out eight, walked two and allowed only two hits in 7.2 scoreless innings. His latest masterpiece helped NCAA champion Vanderbilt defeat UVa 5-1 before a crowd of 21,652 at TD Ameritrade Park.
“He just gives you a chance to win every single time,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “The game never gets away from him.”
Five times in the first seven innings, the Wahoos (42-24) went down 1-2-3 against Fulmer, the SEC pitcher of the year.
“He was fantastic,” Virginia starter Connor Jones said.
Jones, a sophomore right-hander, impressed as well. He didn’t allow a run in the first five innings and retired the Commodores (51-19) in order in the fourth and the fifth.
“I thought Connor Jones did an outstanding job of just containing us, keeping us off rhythm,” Corbin said.
Jones looked strong to start the bottom of the sixth, too, retiring the first two batters he faced, including Dansby Swanson, the No. 1 overall pick in this month’s MLB draft. But his fortunes changed quickly. Zander Wiel reached on an infield single, a slow-rolling grounder to third, and Jones walked Bryan Reynolds on four pitches. That brought up freshman Will Toffey, who stroked a two-run double down the left-field line.
“I thought I made a pretty good pitch, and he just got a hold of it,” Jones said, “and you’ve got to credit him for that. He squared up and hit it well, and unfortunately [for UVa] it found a hole.”
The Commodores scored three more runs in the seventh to build a commanding lead, the first two off Jones and the third off sophomore left-hander Kevin Doherty.
In the eighth, after giving up a ground-rule double to UVa freshman Adam Haseley and then walking sophomore Daniel Pinero on four pitches, Fulmer departed to a standing ovation from the Vanderbilt fans. But the Cavaliers were unable to fully capitalize on Fulmer’s absence.
Virginia’s lone run came in the ninth, on an RBI single by pinch-hitter Jack Gerstenmaier off Vandy closer Kyle Wright. Gerstenmaier’s hit scored senior Kenny Towns, who’d led off the inning with a single. But Wright struck out Doherty and then retired freshman Ernie Clement on a groundout to move Vandy to the brink of a second straight NCAA title.
“Vanderbilt’s got a very good club,” Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor said. “They’re really, really talented on the mound, and when you have your opportunities against a club like this, you have to capitalize, otherwise it’ll be short-lived.”
In last year’s CWS Finals, after the Commodores won the opener 9-8, the `Hoos bounced back to win the second game 7-2.
“I told the team after the game that we have been in this situation before, last year certainly in this championship series,” O’Connor said. “But we were just in this situation going into Saturday against Florida. If you win, you get a chance to play. If you don’t, your season’s over.”
Vandy clinched a spot in the CWS Finals with a win over TCU on Friday night. UVa followed a more challenging path back to the championship series.
After losing to the Florida Gators on Friday afternoon, Virginia had to face them against Saturday night in an elimination game. The ‘Hoos rallied to win that game, and a similar feat will be required Tuesday night if O’Connor’s club is to extend its season.
“Having our backs against the wall is nothing new for us this year,” Jones said. “It seemed like every other week there was something where our backs were against the wall … I think we’re going to be fine.”
O’Connor said: “I told this team they’ve done a great job of handling adversity all year long when their backs have been against the wall, and I would imagine [Tuesday] night’s going to be no different.”
Corbin said Sunday that redshirt junior left-hander Philip Pfeifer (6-4, 3.77), a third-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers, would start Game 2 for Vandy.
Waddell, a junior left-hander, has started two games in this College World Series, and he’s built a reputation for pitching his best in crucial moments. In 2014, he threw a complete game in UVa’s win over Vandy in the championship series. Waddell might be available if there’s a third game this week, but his teammates will have to deliver Tuesday night for that to even be a possibility.
The `Hoos are “certainly going to need to piece it together tomorrow,” O’Connor said late Monday night. “We knew that coming into this three-game series that that was going to be the case.”
Josh Sborz (6-2, 1.70 ERA), who has pitched brilliantly in relief throughout this NCAA tournament, is not likely to start Tuesday night, O’Connor said, but the junior right-hander should be available.
The Cavaliers’ other pitching options include Doherty (3-1, 3.40 ERA), sophomore right-hander Alec Bettinger (5-5, 5.40), the left-handed Haseley (2-1, 2.66), junior left-hander David Rosenberger (3-0, 5.03), freshman right-hander Tommy Doyle (1-1, 3.47), and, perhaps, junior left-hander Nathan Kirby (5-3, 2.61).
Kirby, a two-time All-ACC selection, started Friday against Florida after missing nine weeks with a lat injury. He threw 53 pitches in 2.2 innings.
“I don’t know whether [Kirby] will be an option or not [Tuesday night],” O’Connor said. “Probably not.”
None of this is ideal for the `Hoos, O’Connor acknowledged.
“Last year when we were in this situation, Brandon Waddell was able to come back and throw a complete game in Game 2,” O’Connor said. “We’re not going to have somebody do that [Tuesday] night, because our plan will be a little bit different pitching-wise. But I know this: Our guys won’t back down, they won’t quit, and they’ll continue to fight, even like they did tonight, all the way till the end.”
Led by Swanson (2 for 4) and Reynolds (2 for 3), Vandy totaled nine hits against Virginia pitchers Jones, Doherty and Rosenberger.
“They’re tough,” O’Connor said of the Commodores. “They’re competitive at the plate. You have to make your pitches.”
For long stretches Monday night, Jones was able to do so. Pitching on eight days rest, he finished with six strikeouts.
“I was really proud there of Connor, and I thought he really battled and gave it his best out there and gave us a chance,” O’Connor said.
Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, they ran into a pitcher with few peers in the college game.
“Carson Fulmer certainly was tremendous,” O’Connor said. “He pitched the bottom of the zone, did a nice job of changing speeds when we did get a chance to get a few guys on, just didn’t allow us to get that big hit, and certainly he’s worthy of all the accolades that he’s received and he’s a tremendous competitor.”
Game 2 is scheduled to start Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET. ESPN is televising the CWS Finals.