June 25, 2015
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OMAHA, Neb. — University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan surveyed the frenzied scene around her at TD Ameritrade Park late Wednesday night — the players and coaches exchanging hugs and smiles on the field, the fans still cheering in the stands, the fireworks exploding in the sky — and summed it up succinctly.
“Unbelievable,” Sullivan said.
Believe it. At the start of May, UVa was in danger of missing the NCAA baseball tournament for the first time under head coach Brian O’Connor. But not only did the Cavaliers make the 64-team tournament, they won it.
“Not many people thought that this could happen,” O’Connor said after Virginia clinched its first NCAA title with a 4-2 victory over Vanderbilt in the third game of the best-of-three College World Series Finals.
This was the Wahoos’ fourth CWS appearance under O’Connor, an Omaha native and Creighton alumnus, and all have come in the past seven seasons. Of those four teams, this one was considered the least likely to come away with the championship trophy. But look at the `Hoos now.
“We just showed our toughness once again,” senior third baseman Kenny Towns said. “We’ve been down a lot of these games in the postseason, but our resiliency and our ability to come back and stay in those games and not let things get out of control and keep fighting and getting back, it’s been incredible.”
Virginia finished 44-24. That’s the fewest victories for an NCAA baseball champion in nearly 50 years. The Cavaliers are only the third team to win the NCAA title after losing Game 1 of the best-of-three CWS Finals.
“I’m just proud of these guys that they just hung in there,” O’Connor said, “and it’s an unbelievable example to people [of what can happen] if you stay together as a group, if you’ve got a group of guys that work hard, a group of guys that really love each other and care about each other and are passionate about what they’re trying to accomplish and just fight and won’t go away.”
UVa began this NCAA tournament late last month in Lake Elsinore, Calif., 2,500 miles from Davenport Field, as the No. 3 seed in a four-team regional. The Cavaliers’ postseason journey ended 1,186 miles from Davenport, in Omaha, at the eight-team CWS.
“It’s been a crazy ride this year,” O’Connor said at the end of his 12th season at Virginia.
Injuries to key players, including two-time All-ACC pitcher Nathan Kirby, nearly derailed the `Hoos. Moreover, because of inclement weather and field conditions, 13 games scheduled for Davenport Field during the regular season were canceled, postponed or moved to other sites.
In the NCAA tournament, though, none of that mattered. Virginia needed only three games to win the Lake Elsinore regional and only two to defeat Maryland in a best-of-three super regional at Davenport Field.
In Omaha, Arkansas, Cal State Fullerton, LSU, Miami (Fla.), TCU and, finally, Florida were eliminated, leaving Virginia and Vandy to meet in the championship series for the second straight season.
As in 2014, the Commodores took Game 1 and the `Hoos won Game 2 at TD Ameritrade Park. Vandy won the deciding game 3-2 last year, a bitter ending to what was then the greatest season in UVa history.
“It’s something that takes a while to get over,” junior left-hander Brandon Waddell recalled Wednesday night. “But at some point you’ve got to go back to work. You’ve kind of gotta delete it. Take the experience and the lessons learned and go out and try to get back the next year.”
Twelve months later, the teams found their roles reversed during the awards ceremony that followed Game 3. This time, Vanderbilt players were the ones leaning on their dugout rail, glum expressions on their faces, as they watched a new NCAA champion be crowned.
Virginia became only the second ACC team — Wake Forest was the first, in 1955 — to win an NCAA baseball championship.
“It was a very, very gutty performance by their team, their pitching staff, to allow them to get to this point and be successful,” Vandy coach Tim Corbin said of the Cavaliers.
The Commodores, the home team Wednesday night, scored two runs in the first inning against Waddell, who was pitching on only three days rest in his third start of this CWS. But the `Hoos pulled even in the fourth, on a two-run home run by freshman Pavin Smith, and then took the lead for good in the fifth on an RBI single by Smith, who drove in classmate Adam Haseley.
In the seventh, the `Hoos went up 4-2 on a single by Towns — who else? — that scored Haseley. That gave Towns 28 career RBI in NCAA tournament games, by far a program record.
The Cavaliers’ pitchers did the rest. In the same ballpark in which he’d suffered through a disastrous start in the opener of last year’s CWS Finals, Kirby replaced Waddell after the seventh Wednesday night and made sure history was not repeated.
Kirby, in only his second appearance since missing nine weeks with a lat injury, struck out five of the eight batters he faced in locking up the Commodores (51-21). The junior left-hander fanned pinch-hitter Kyle Smith to end the game, triggering a dogpile for the ages by Virginia’s players and coaches.
“Nobody deserves it more than he does,” Waddell said of Kirby. “I love him like a brother, and handing the ball to him at the end of this game, I knew with 100-percent confidence he was going to get it done.”
Waddell, already known around the program as “Big Game Brandon” for his postseason exploits, added to his legend Wednesday night. After the first inning, he allowed only two hits. Waddell, whose ERA in 73 career NCAA tournament innings in 2.34, retired the last 11 batters he faced.
“I thought Waddell, in a lot of ways, was left for dead, but he just got himself up in the fifth, sixth and seventh,” Corbin said. “He turned the game around. He went 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3. And when they brought Kirby out, he pitched with a lot of adrenaline and just shut us down.”
Waddell’s second start in this CWS came Saturday night against Florida, and he pitched that elimination game on four days rest. O’Connor and pitching Karl Kuhn knew they could not expect a complete game Waddell on Wednesday night, and they gladly would have settled for four or five quality innings.
“He blew my game plan right out of the water, didn’t he?” Kuhn said. “Wadds was Wadds. He was just relentless. He’s the epitome of a pitcher, an artist. He doesn’t waver. He’s unflappable.”
Waddell needed 20 pitches to get out of the first inning, at which point it seemed possible that he might not make it through the second, let alone the third. But, as he has done so many times during his college career, Waddell battled through adversity.
“Certainly he’ll go down as one of the great ones that’s ever pitched in this program and as [good] a big-game pitcher as you get,” O’Connor said.
After the first inning, Waddell said, “I knew 2-0 wasn’t going to be the final score. I knew our offense was going to score, you know they were going to put up some runs. So at that point it was a matter of trying to keep [Vandy] to two and keeping our team in the ball game as long as I could.”
In his 11th career start in the NCAA tournament, Waddell threw 104 pitches Wednesday night. The last induced a groundout from Tyler Campbell to end the seventh, after which Waddell’s work was done.
As a pitching coach, Kuhn said, “you let the warrior tell you when he’s done fighting. And [Waddell] came to me after the seventh and he said, `I want to keep going, but I’m out of gas.’
“They know that’s their responsibility. They have to tell me that, and they know I don’t think badly of them in any way, size, shape or form. They give me everything they have, and they come up for air when they tell me that they’re done, and I trust them to do that. And he did, and he passed the ball to Kirby, and we were fortunate enough to get six outs.”
With Josh Sborz unavailable — the junior closer had thrown 77 pitches Tuesday night in UVa’s 3-0 win over Vandy — the decision to give the ball to Kirby was an easy one, Kuhn said. Never mind that Kirby, a two-time All-ACC selection, had suffered through a disastrous Game 2 start against the Commodores last year, or that he’d lasted only 2.2 innings Friday against Florida in his first appearance since April 17.
Kirby embraced the challenge.
“A couple days ago I felt like I was learning to ride a bike again, especially being out here in front of this big a crowd as we had and as great a team as Florida was,” he said. “But tonight, starting and coming in for relief are two different things. I knew this was the last six outs of the season and I was going to go out and give it everything I could.”
Kirby’s injury in April “kind of hurt our team as a whole,” Sborz said, “but that kid never quit, and that just shows how hard he worked to get back.
“It really special to see one of the guys you came in with win it for your team, and just to watch Wadds do what he always does. It’s a special thing. Even when I didn’t get to play, I couldn’t have been happier for both of them, and they deserve it.”
Sborz will leave an impressive legacy, too. In four appearances at this CWS, he pitched 13 scoreless innings, collected three victories and earned one save, a body of work that earned him the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.
Joining Sborz on the All-CWS team were four other Cavaliers: Waddell, Towns, freshman second baseman Ernie Clement and sophomore shortstop Daniel Pinero.
In the bottom of fourth, Towns made one of most memorable defensive plays of this or any other Virginia season. With a runner on second, Towns dived toward the third-base line to stop a sharply hit ball. He then scrambled to his feet and somehow threw out Campbell at first, ending the inning and robbing the Commodores of a run that would have put them ahead 3-2.
In the top of the fourth, with UVa trailing 2-0, Towns had drawn a leadoff walk. That brought up Smith, who belted an offering from Vandy starter Walker Buehler, a first-round draft pick of the Dodgers, over the wall in right field.
“I wasn’t thinking about trying to hit a home run,” said Smith, who led the Cavaliers with 83 hits this season. “I was just trying to get on base, trying to extend the inning, trying to keep the rally going. When I hit it, I knew the wind was blowing out and I was just, like, telling it to go.”
In his first two games in the CWS Finals, Smith was a combined 1 for 8. That didn’t faze him Wednesday night.
“He took a deep breath, gathered himself and obviously did it on the biggest stage that you can do it on [in college baseball],” UVa associate head coach Kevin McMullan said. “He looked very calm tonight, compared to the previous two days. We needed it, and we’re thankful that he stepped up for us.”
Smith was one of many who did so during the Cavaliers’ remarkable postseason run. But credit for the NCAA title, players and coaches said, also goes to those who preceded them.
When he was handed the microphone on the field after the game Wednesday night, O’Connor thanked Sullivan and athletics director Craig Littlepage, among others, and then made a point of singling out UVa’s former players.
“You are the ones that laid the groundwork [for this championship],” O’Connor said, “and this team and our coaching staff thanks you.”
Kirby said the `Hoos were “playing not only for the guys on the team and the coaching staff and the fans, but for everyone that’s walked between the lines before us in this program. And I think that was probably the most gratifying thing, knowing that all our hard work and their hard work paid off.”
Towns said: “This is what you sign up to come to Virginia for, just the chance to be here. Being in this position with this team and getting it done, it’s hard to fathom. Oh, my goodness.”
O’Connor’s parents, John and Barb, still live across the Missouri River from Omaha in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and they were on the field for the postgame celebration. For John O’Connor, who introduced his three sons to baseball when they were boys, it was a moment he’ll never forget.
“The thrill of a lifetime,” the elder O’Connor said. “I feel very fortunate that I can be here and partake in it. It’s just unbelievable.”