June 24, 2015

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By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

OMAHA, Neb. — This is what makes sports so compelling, isn’t it? Not every game unfolds as expected. Every so often, unlikely heroes emerge and underdogs make the conventional wisdom look foolish.

“Anything can happen,” University of Virginia baseball coach Brian O’Connor said.

And so it did Tuesday night in the second game of the best-of-three College World Series Finals. UVa, which needed to win to extend the series, defeated defending NCAA champion Vanderbilt 3-0 before a crowd of 24,646 at TD Ameritrade Park and an ESPN audience.

That marked only the second time this season the Commodores had been shut out. The Wahoos, whose runs were all unearned, also ended Vandy’s nine-game winning streak.

In the latest improbable victory in a postseason marked by such results, Virginia received huge contributions from, among others, freshman Adam Haseley, pitching for the first time since May 23, and senior walk-on Thomas Woodruff, starting for the first time in an NCAA tournament game.

Somehow, it all seemed fitting for a team that entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 3 seed in the four-team Lake Elsinore (Calif.) regional and has followed a twisting path back to the CWS Finals. (Vanderbilt edged UVa 3-2 in the decisive third game last year.)

The head coach didn’t seem surprised by Haseley’s gem — the 6-1 left-hander allowed no runs in a career-high five innings — or that Virginia’s Nos. 8 and 9 hitters Thursday, freshman Ernie Clement and Woodruff, were a combined for 6 for 8 with three RBI.

O’Connor said he’s “a big believer that to be in this position, to compete for a national championship, you need guys to rise to the occasion that maybe hadn’t yet or [that] people didn’t expect. I think if you go back and look at the history of this event, there’s been players that have emerged and got big hits or pitched quality innings for their team.”

For all the seemingly unimaginable developments Tuesday night, UVa closer Josh Sborz’s performance was not one of them. The junior right-hander, who earned the victory Saturday night against Florida, pitched the final four innings Tuesday night and once again dazzled.

In the top of the ninth inning, after Vanderbilt’s first two batters reached base, Sborz retired the next three in order, the coup de grace coming on a strikeout of Nolan Rogers as midnight approached back in Charlottesville.

Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin marveled at the poise of the 6-3, 225-pound Sborz, whom the Dodgers selected early this month with the 74th overall pick in the major-league draft.

“He was good,” Corbin said. “He’s kind of a bend-but-not-break kid, and anytime he got in trouble he made big pitches to get himself out of it. You can tell he’s been out there before. He’s advanced.”

Sborz has not allowed an earned run in his 13 innings at the CWS this year. For the season, he’s now 7-2 with a 1.60 earned-run average.

Over the past two seasons, O’Connor said, at the most important moments Sborz “has taken his game to a different level. And you can see how talented he is, and he’s just a model of consistency. And in order to have a chance to win this thing, you need somebody like that to really step up, and he’s done the job all year.”

And so now the season, which for UVa started Feb. 13 with a victory at East Carolina, comes down to a final game. At 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Virginia (43-24) meets Vandy (51-20).

The `Hoos are seeking their first NCAA title in baseball. The Commodores, who will be the home team Wednesday night, are trying to win their second.

If the Cavaliers prevail, they will finish with the fewest victories for an NCAA champion since Ohio State (27-6-1) in 1966.

This is UVa’s fourth trip to Omaha in its 12 seasons under O’Connor. If the breakthrough comes Wednesday night, he said, “I would just be happy and excited for these players … because it would be a memory that they’d have forever.

“They are playing for each other. They’ve worked very hard, as all teams do. But in order to win a national championship, things have got to come together for you, and it’s come together for this team so far.”

In the first game of the CWS Finals, the `Hoos lost 5-1 on Monday night, in part because they could not solve Vandy’s starting pitcher, junior Carson Fulmer, the No. 8 overall pick in this month’s draft.

The Commodores will come back with another first-round pick Wednesday: junior right-hander Walker Buehler (5-2, 2.85 ERA), whom the Dodgers selected 24th overall.

O’Connor will hand the ball to his most experienced pitcher, junior left-hander Brandon Waddell (4-5, 4.02). A fifth-round draft pick of the Pirates, Waddell will make his fifth career start in the College World Series and third this year.

Waddell started Saturday night against Florida on four days rest. He’ll be pitching on three days rest in the CWS finale.

“He’s made some pretty big starts in this stadium and pitched very, very well,” O’Connor said, “so I’m confident that he’ll go out and give us a good quality start.”

And then?

“Past that, I’m not sure what we’ll do,” O’Connor said. “But this was kind of how we had mapped it out when we had looked at this about a week ago [to decide] what was going to give us the best chance to put our team in [position] to win a championship.”

Relief options figure to include sophomore right-hander Alec Bettinger and junior left-handers Nathan Kirby, Kevin Doherty and David Rosenberger. But O’Connor stated emphatically late Tuesday that Sborz will not appear again in this CWS.

Sborz threw 54 pitches Saturday night against Florida and then, on two days rest, 77 against Vandy.

“Obviously my pitch count was up — [the Commodores] were really fighting — but it’s the College World Series,” Sborz said, “and that adrenaline’s in there the whole time you’re pitching. Each inning’s a struggle, but when you hear 25,000 people yelling at you, it gets you pumped up and allows you to keep going.”

Asked about O’Connor’s comments on his status for Wednesday night, Sborz smiled.

“I’m going to complain, nag and do everything I can just to pitch,” he said. “If they need me for one out, two outs, three outs, I’m going to do my best to try to [persuade the coaches to] get me in there. But if they don’t need me, good for us.”

Better known as UVa’s starting center-fielder and leadoff hitter, Haseley learned Tuesday morning that he would start Game 2. In only his 11th pitching appearance of the season, he gave the `Hoos exactly the start they needed that night.

Haseley’s previous career high was 4.2 innings, against NC State in the ACC tournament May 23 in Durham, N.C.

“We really didn’t do much against him,” Corbin said. “He did a nice job of slowing us down. Again, you just have to give a kid like that credit, especially being on the mound for the first time [in the NCAA tournament]. Now, I know he’s played, but being on the mound for the first time, pitching like he did, he did a nice job.”

O’Connor said he wasn’t sure how Haseley would pitch against Vandy. But he was confident the freshman from Windermere, Fla., would be not overwhelmed by the moment.

“In high school, he’s been on the world stage, playing for USA Baseball, and performed at a very, very high level,” O’Connor said. And so I knew that he wouldn’t be in awe of the situation: 25,000 people, everything on the line. I knew he would go out there and throw strikes and give us a chance.”

With Haseley on the mound, junior Joe McCarthy moved to center field, and Woodruff started in right. He came into the game batting only .235, but singled in each of his first three at-bats.

Woodruff’s final hit, in the bottom of the sixth, drove in Doherty and McCarthy and made it 3-0. Freshman Pavin Smith had scored the first run moments earlier on an RBI single by classmate Clement, one of the heroes of the NCAA super regional at Davenport Field early this month.

“You have to give those guys credit at the bottom [of UVa’s lineup],” Corbin said. “Clement and Woodruff did a good job tonight. They got the timely hit. They got the timely hit that we didn’t.”

Woodruff, of course, has a history in Omaha. As a pinch-runner, he scored the winning run in each of UVa’s walk-off victories at last year’s College World Series, the first against Mississippi and the second, two nights later, against TCU. But this was different. In the past two months, Woodruff had started only one game in the field.

“It’s definitely a little surreal,” Woodruff said. “But I think the approach that I try to take in practice [is to] treat it like a game and treat it like every repetition matters. You get out there and everything is just like practice, and it kind of slows down and you don’t expect it, but you know and you’re confident in your abilities and you can trust your preparation much better.”

Woodruff, who came to UVa from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia, earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering last month. He graduated from UVa with a 3.7 grade-point average, and his excellence in the classroom has not gone unnoticed in Omaha.

During the June 12 opening ceremonies at TD Ameritrade Park, Woodruff received the NCAA Baseball Elite 89 Award, presented annually to the player with the highest cumulative GPA at the College World Series.

Woodruff has “been as unselfish and as [much of] a team player as you could possibly be for four years,” O’Connor said Tuesday night. “And I really believe that at the most important time you get rewarded for that, and certainly it showed true today.”

Such moments, O’Connor said, are among his rewards as a coach.

“So much is made of the high draft pick, and this guy with talent or that guy with talent,” O’Connor said. “That’s college baseball right there, Thomas Woodruff. A guy that’s stuck it out and grinded it out. On the biggest stage when his team is counting on him to deliver, he has the best game that he’s had in his college career. What a special memory for him.”

After a short bus ride from the stadium to their hotel, the `Hoos entered a lobby filled with cheering fans. If all goes as planned for Virginia, another celebration will take place late Wednesay night.

“One more,” sophomore catcher Matt Thaiss said. “One more.”

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