CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Virginia is heading back to Omaha. Much in the way it got to the Super Regionals, the Cavaliers got there by showing that they are one of the premier teams in the country because of their ability to have standout performances up and down the lineup and the pitching staff.
On Monday night, it was third baseman Kenny Towns and pitcher Josh Sborz that delivered in a big way in Virginia’s 11-2 Game 3 win against Maryland. Towns went 3-for-4 with four RBI, and Sborz pitched seven shutout innings. Daniel Pinero, Joe McCarthy and Brandon Downs all added two hits.
“I think this is a team that is built to win in Omaha,” Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor said. “I think they understand what it takes to be successful. … I think in all phases of the game, this team is pretty special.”
For O’Connor, it is a homecoming -- he grew up in Omaha and played at Creighton when the Bluejays went to the College World Series in 1991. O’Connor is the third-winningest active coach in college baseball.
Virginia got off to an encouraging start Monday. After quelling a two-walk top of the first with a double play, Derek Fisher and Towns gave the Hoos a 3-0 lead. After Fisher singled up the middle to knock in the first run, Towns brought in two more on a triple off the left-field wall.
Then in the bottom of third, the bases would be loaded for Towns. His single brought the lead to 5-0 and knocked out Maryland starter Bobby Ruse. The Hoos tacked on one more before the inning was done to bring the score to 6-0.
The Virginia offense didn’t do much until Towns came up again in the bottom of the fifth, when he hit a two-out single into left field and stole second.
“I wasn’t trying to do too much,” Towns, a junior, said. “I just got some good pitches to hit.” In Saturday’s Game 1 loss, Virginia left 14 men on base, and Towns was the main culprit, being responsible for six of them with an 0-for-4 performance. He rebounded with a strong performance on Saturday, going 3-for-5 with an RBI and a run scored. Then came Monday.
“Kenny Towns has been clutch,” O’Connor said, citing big hits in his freshman year. “I know he has a lot of pride. I think he’s one of the real leaders of our team, because he comes out there every day and he’s ready to play.
After Sunday’s game, O’Connor said that he didn’t know who would start Monday. He ended up going with Sborz, who was the Saturday starter for most of the year, but was removed from the weekend rotation three weeks ago in favor of Artie Lewicki. He had not pitched much in the past three weeks, but no one would have known based on the way he pitched Monday.
“I had complete confidence in Josh Sborz going out there [Monday],” O’Connor said. “That guy’s got really electric stuff. After he settled down after the first inning, he was absolutely in control of the game for seven innings. … When his team needed him the most, he stepped up and was absolutely dominating.”
Sborz scattered just four hits in his seven shutout innings. He struck out nine Terp hitters while walking three, two of which came in the first inning.
When he didn’t come out for the eighth, Virginia fans stood and clapped -- a curtain call seemed necessary. As much as he resisted, his teammates insisted, and the crowd kept clapping until Sborz left the dugout to acknowledge the fans.
“There has never been a greater experience than that in my life,” Sborz said.
As soon as it looked like Maryland might have a chance at making it interesting after Blake Schmit’s two-RBI double in the top of the eighth, Virginia shut down those hopes quickly. Closer Nick Howard came in and recorded the final out of the eighth, and the Hoos poured it on with five runs in the bottom half of the inning. Branden Cogswell, Daniel Pinero and Mike Papi all had RBI hits.
Maryland’s surprising tournament run and season ends at 40-23. It is the furthest the Terps have advanced in the postseason, and the first time in program history they have reached 40 wins.
“I really can’t sit here and lament a lot about what these guys have accomplished this season, and certainly in the last 30 percent of the season,” Maryland head coach John Szefc said. Maryland won just five ACC games a few years ago, and now was one win away from the College World Series.
For opponents in Omaha, the proposition of facing this Virginia team wil be a scary one. The Hoos have scored 17 runs in the past 10 offensive innings, and have a deep pitching rotation.
“These guys are by far the most-talented team we have played all year. It’s not even close.” Szefc said. “On the mound, 1 through 9 … [Sborz] is a No. 1 for most other people. We ran into what well could be the national champion.”