OMAHA, Neb. -- Pitching helped get Vanderbilt and Virginia to the College World Series Finals and there was no reason to think that wouldn’t continue in the three-game series. Naturally in Game 1 on Monday night, the teams combined for a CWS stadium-record 17 runs.
Vanderbilt scored nine runs in the third inning to beat Virginia 9-8 and move within one victory of the school’s first national championship. Not exactly the script everyone had written before the first pitch.
“We couldn’t have scripted that particular game and if anyone said they could, they're lying,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “I don't think you could have called a nine-run inning.”With the Cavaliers' starting ace Nathan Kirby and the Commodores going with Walker Buehler, runs figured to be at a premium, just like every other game at the College World Series. Early on, Kirby dominated as he retired the first six batters to face him. We were on our way to another stellar pitching performance with the Cavs leading 2-0, much like his seven innings of brilliance eight days ago against Mississippi.
Poof, it was gone like that in the third inning. Kirby lost the feel on every one of his pitches. He walked five Commodores in a seven-batter span, including three with the bases loaded to force in runs. He’d never walked more than three in a game and had walked only 38 batters in 145.2 career innings. He just couldn’t find it.
“I just couldn't find my release point,” Kirby said. “It hadn't happened all year but it happened [Monday]. I tried to fight through it and it got to me there in the third inning.”
His head coach Brian O’Connor was as surprised as anyone about his ace, who entered with a 1.70 ERA, fell apart.
“Nathan Kirby has done the job all year long for this team, and I thought he was pretty sharp the first couple of innings, and the third inning, you know, it just kind of came unraveled. I went out and told Nathan that he needs to walk off this mound with his head held high and that this outing is not going to define who he is as a person or who he is as a pitcher.”
Trailing 4-2 with one out following the three bases-loaded walks, Kirby finally got someone to put the ball in play. Vanderbilt’s Rhett Wiseman rolled one down to sure-handed first baseman Mike Papi. He bobbled it and everyone was safe. Papi’s first error of the postseason came after 19 pitches without a ball being put in play.
It meant the end of the night for Kirby – a season-low 2.1 innings.
“There will be many more opportunities down the road for Nathan Kirby, and he's quite a competitor and very, very talented young man,” O’Connor said. “Sometimes that just happens, and it kind of came up out of nowhere.”
And it only got worse after he left trailing 5-2. Saturday’s hero, Tyler Campbell, strode to the plate with the bases loaded and the owner of three RBI this season in his pocket. He doubled the total with one swing, grounding his second double of the inning and just third of the season, down the leftfield line to clear the bases. It was 9-2 after 13 batters came to the plate and recorded just three hits.
Kirby’s booked was closed, matching a career-high five earned runs allowed. A team that allowed four runs in its first three CWS games and only 17 in nine NCAA tournament games, gave up a stadium record for runs in a half inning with nine. It matched the most runs the Cavs allowed in a game all season.
“We didn't come out on top, and the only thing you can do is carry it over,” Virginia’s Brandon Cogswell said. “We put 15 hits together and eight runs and six after the third. Like I said, I couldn't be more proud of these guys. We didn't come out on top, but these guys realize we can carry this into [Tuesday].”
The Virginia offense made things interesting right away, getting three runs right back in the bottom of the third inning to bring the inning’s run total to 12 – two more than the highest-scoring game at the 2-14 CWS. It marked the most combined runs in an inning at the CWS since June 9, 2001, when Miami and Tennessee each scored six runs in a 21-13 victory for the Hurricanes. For a night, it was as if we were taken back across town to Rosenblatt Stadium and we were in store for a game that would feature 34 runs.
Virginia’s bullpen made sure that wasn’t going to happen and almost allowed the Cavs to become the first team to overcome a seven-run deficit at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha. Whit Mayberry and Austin Young combined to throw 6.2 innings of one-run relief, allowing only four hits while striking out six. The Cavs just happened to fall one run short after leaving nine runners on base.
“Mayberry did a nice job while he was in there,” O’Connor said. “So did Austin Young. Those guys didn't give up many runs and they gave us a chance.”
In a game where Virginia outhit its opponent 15-6 and scored seven runs with two outs, it’s that frightful third inning that will stick in the minds of many for a long time. It’s not often you can give up a nine-run inning and almost win.
“The fight in us just did not stop,” O’Connor said. “We even had opportunities in the eighth inning to tie the ballgame, and both McCarthy and Fisher put good swings on the ball. Unfortunately we couldn’t get that tying run in.”
In a College World Series that saw it take 30 innings to score the first 16 runs, it only took eight innings to score 17 on Monday night. For Virginia, one of the strangest innings of its season led to a 1-0 series deficit. But luckily for the Cavs it’s just that – a best two-of-three series.