OMAHA, Neb. -- Virginia’s plan on the mound going into Game 3 of the College World Series Finals against Vanderbilt: Josh Sborz to Artie Lewicki to closer Nick Howard.
That went according to plan for the Cavaliers in the first winner-take-all game since 2009 at the CWS. The only problem -- Sborz lasted one inning and Howard gave up a rare home run to John Norwood in the eighth inning to break a 2-2 tie as the Commodores held on to win 3-2.
In a 26-pitch first inning, Sborz walked two batters and gave up two hits and a run to fall behind 1-0. With Lewicki and Howard fresh in the bullpen, Virginia coach Brian O’Connor made the call to bring in his setup guy to start the second, despite the first run scoring on a throwing error by catcher Robbie Coman on a double steal.
Lewicki did his job, just as he’d done since moving to the bullpen during the Super Regionals after starting nine games this season. Lewicki saw his scoreless streak snapped at 32.1 innings by Vanderbilt’s unearned run in the sixth; overall he pitched 22 innings in the NCAA tournament and 11.2 in the CWS.
Lewicki kept his team in the game, enough for his team to come back in the sixth inning when trailing 2-0, something the Cavaliers hadn’t minded in this CWS. In a strange twist, the Cavs were 3-0 when trailing after two innings. They had the Commodores right where they wanted.
A night after exploding for three runs in the sixth in Game 2, the Cavs made it happen again. Daniel Pinero singled home Coman to cut the lead in half and with two outs and the bases loaded, Kenny Towns lined a ball to shortstop where Vince Conde -- a gold-glove caliber shortstop -- couldn’t make the play. Pinero trotted home with the tying run.
But John La Prise struck out to leave the bases loaded. Virginia sure could’ve used the three-spot from the night before.
“Throughout the course of the game, we did a good job getting guys on base,” Virginia’s Joe McCarthy said. “But it comes down to we never got that big hit to bust it open. Guys were hitting the ball hard, but just couldn't get that big one.”
Back to the Sborz-to-Lewicki-to-Howard recipe for a Virginia win. Enter Howard, the 19th pick in the MLB draft, to pitch the top of the eighth. With a fastball in the upper-90s and a slider in the mid-80s, he’d built a reputation of being one of the best closers in the sport. In four appearances spanning 7.1 innings, he didn’t allow a run and gave up just five baserunners while striking out eight.
So in a 2-2 game, Howard would surely carry his team as long as they’d need until they could push a run across. Except, much like the plan of Sborz starting and giving is team some innings, Howard didn’t live up to his end of the bargain.
On the second pitch to Norwood, Howard threw a 97 mph fastball up and in. Norwood turned on it and launched his third home run of the season into the left field bullpen to give Vanderbilt a 3-2 lead.
“You've got to credit Johnny Norwood,” O’Connor said. “The pitch was up in the zone, and he took an aggressive swing and hit the ball out.”
How about this for symmetry? It was Norwood’s third home run of the season. It was Howard’s third home run allowed in 2014. The last time Howard allowed a long ball came on May 16 against Wake Forest. The last time anyone hit a home run for Vanderbilt? You guessed it -- May 16.
It was also only the third home run anyone hit in 16 games at the 2014 College World Series. It’s a funny game, that this year the game-winning run would score on a long ball.
“I just was hoping that it didn't have enough top spin that it would hit the fence,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “They had seen two already, Dansby's and Rhett, and they were six inches away from being home runs. But Johnny's strength and bat speed with the velocity of Howard, that doesn't happen to that kid. A 97 mile an hour fastball and someone to turn it around like that takes a great amount of ability. “
They still had a chance in the bottom of the eighth against Adam Ravenelle. With the first two runners on, Virginia chose to lay down a sacrifice bunt with Derek Fisher to get them to second and third. Two batters later, the bases were loaded for La Prise. He bounced one back to the pitcher who threw home to get the second out before Brandon Downes bounced into a fielders’ choice as well.
The Cavs left nine on base. Quite a difference from the first two games of the CWS Finals, which saw them gather 28 hits.
“I think it's human nature as a player or as a coach to reflect back and look at what could have happened, but if we did that all the time and we did that in our personal lives, I think we'd drive ourselves crazy,” O’Connor said. “We had opportunities, and it just didn't happen for us. It wasn't for a lack of want to or effort or the right approach or anything. They made some outstanding pitches in the clutch.”
A 1-2-3 ninth inning left Virginia at 53 wins -- one shy of the school’s first national championship. It also meant an Atlantic Coast Conference that hasn’t won a national title since 1955 has to wait another year.
“The University of Virginia baseball program will be back here in Omaha at some point, and maybe the next time we can win it all,” O’Connor said.