OMAHA, Neb. -- The ball came off Harrison Bader’s bat so fast that it knocked Josh Sborz’ glove off of his hand. Sborz, facing his first batter of the night after relieving Brandon Waddell’s nearly flawless seven-plus innings of work, picked up the ball and remained composed. He looked Dalton Guthrie back to third then made a quick decision throw out Ryan Larson at second.
A lineout and a groundout later, the threat and the top of the eighth was over. On that play and on this night, everything seemed to be going right for Virginia on the mound.
When head coach Brian O’Connor went out after the comebacker to make sure Sborz’ hand was OK, the junior right-hander was smiling and joking on the mound.
“I was glad I didn’t get hit in the head,” Sborz said.
That did happen on a line drive in offseason practice off the bat of teammate Matt Thaiss. This time, Sborz made the stop, and it very well may have been a game-saving play. It went in the scorebook as a simple 1-6 putout, but it seemed too take whatever brief momentum the Gators might have been gaining and squashed it.
“Sborz did a nice job, and kept his composure, got the out at second,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said of the play. “It's one of those things, if the ball gets through it's a totally different ballgame.”
As great as Sborz was for the last six outs -- he may not have gotten a chance if not for Brandon Waddell. A junior southpaw, Waddell took a lineup that has scored 10-plus runs four times in the postseason thus far and held them to their worst offensive output of the year. Peter Alonso singled in the second, and Ryan Larson had one in the eighth. That’s it.
This not the first time Waddell has stepped up on the big stage of TD Ameritrade Park. He tossed a complete game in Virginia’s victory in Game 2 of last year’s CWS finals, giving up two runs as Virginia forced a Game 3. Waddell was ready for the bright lights again.
“Certainly saved his best outing of the year for a really, really important time,” O’Connor said. “We were fortunate to scratch across a run. [Florida starter A.J.] Puk was tremendous. … We battled enough to find a way.”
On most nights, Puk’s performance may have been enough for the Gators. He went 5.1 innings, struck out five and surrendered four hits. The lone run was charged to him after the Hoos’ Matt Thaiss scored on Robbie Coman's sacrifice fly with the bases loaded in the sixth. Taylor Lewis and Bobby Poyner each pitched 1.1 scoreless innings out of the bullpen for Florida.
Thanks to Waddell and Sborz, Florida was shut out for the first time in more than a month (May 7 vs. Vanderbilt). It may not have appeared to be going that way after a walk and a hit-by-pitch in the first inning, but Waddell settled down and kept hitters off-balance with his off-speed pitches.
“In the first inning I think I was just trying to do too much with it,” Waddell said. “I was trying to put a little bit too much behind things, make pitches move more than they normally do.”
Waddell was then dominant. No batter in the top five of Florida’s lineup earned a hit in the game.
“He just did a really good job mixing his pitches, I think,” said Guthrie, who went 0-for-2 against Waddell. “He was throwing changeups and curveballs and weird counts and he wasn't missing. So we just didn't make the adjustment. But he kept putting pressure on us and he did a great job all night.”
When Waddell got into trouble in the eighth, O’Connor was able to entrust the game to his closer, Sborz, for a six-out save. Sborz was a starter for 13 out of his 15 appearances last season, but moved into the bullpen role to try to fill Nick Howard’s big shoes of a 1.91 ERA with 20 saves. After Monday, Sborz is up to 15 saves with a 1.80 ERA.
Now, the Cavaliers have a three-day break before playing again on Friday. That’s plenty of time for Sborz to rest up for another potential save -- and perhaps enough time for another of Virginia’s arms to get healthy. Nathan Kirby, who was their No. 1 starter before tearing his left latissimus dorsi muscle in April, has been available in their bullpen, but has yet to make an appearance in Omaha.
Coming into the tournament, Virginia was an underdog due to its regular season struggles. Now, it’s looking a lot more like the 2014 squad that reached the CWS finals, and the Hoos are another strong pitching night away like Monday from getting back there.