OMAHA, Neb. -- You never know who is going to be the hero once the umpire yells ‘play ball.’
There were seven members of the Virginia team drafted by Major League clubs just a few weeks ago. The Cavaliers have never lost back-to-backs in the College World Series; certainly one of the recently drafted guys would step up and play hero ball on Tuesday night, with Virginia facing elimination.
Would it be Kenny Towns? He seemed to be involved in every clutch play the Hoos made during this CWS run.
Would it be Joe McCarthy? He is the gritty outfielder that bounced back from being sidelined for 12 weeks from back surgery.
There will always be guys who will rise to the occasion. It happens ever year during the two weeks in Omaha.On Tuesday night, it was none of Virginia’s ‘regular guys’ who wore the hero’s spikes; instead it was a walk-on from Clifton, Virginia. A guy who knows his role, a guy who made two rounds of cuts his freshman year and earned a spot on the team as a bullpen catcher.
Thomas Woodruff only started 13 games this season for Virginia, including Tuesday night’s 3-0 win against Vanderbilt in Game 2 of the CWS. The senior had not had an official at-bat since May 16 and head coach Brian O’Connor said he couldn’t remember the last time Woodruff started for the Cavs.
O’Connor always expects one of his guys to step up when the season is on the line. This time it was the guy with just 61 career games under his belt. A guy with 16 career hits prior to Tuesday. Woodruff added to his career-hit total, connecting three times on Tuesday night and driving two crucial runs in the bottom of the sixth inning.
“Once I had made the decision to start Adam Haseley on the mound, it was clear that that was the right thing to do,” O’Connor said. “And this guy has been as unselfish and as a team player as you could possibly be for four years. And I really believe that at the most important time you get rewarded for that, and certainly it showed true today. And it worked. We just did enough.”
Woodruff graduated in May with a degree in mechanical engineering, and was named the top student-athlete in Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.
O’Connor has been impressed with Woodruff’s work ethic and believes the utility fielder earned his time in the spotlight.
“On Friday night at the opening ceremonies he got the award for the top student-athlete. Graduated with, I don't know, a 3.8, 3.7 or 3.8 in engineering from the University of Virginia,” he said. “And I know his teammates will say the same thing that, you know, every practice this guy has given it everything he's had. Has always been a team player and just been there for his teammates. He's a player that the coaches feel like they can go to give valuable input. And this is what the experience is supposed to be.
"And here you just wish in college baseball that you would be able to give more guys opportunities like this guy got when he was a freshman. And he stuck around, and I'm a big believer that he's being rewarded for it.”
In the opposing dugout, Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin had respect for Virginia’s lineup.
“You have to give those guys credit at the bottom,” he said. “Clement and Woodruff did a good job tonight. They got the timely hit.”
Woodruff will quickly admit he got most of playing time over his four-year career in blowouts. Last season, after suffering a broken finger twice during the spring, all he could do was run. He found himself in a critical role last year as a pinch runner. O’Connor and the coaching staff expected him to make the smart play when he subbed in last year and he continued to make the smart play this season.
Woodruff is also an answer to a Virginia baseball trivia question -- he scored the winning run in Virginia’s 15-inning game with TCU in 2014. Tuesday night’s game will add to his memories. He’s never had a game like he did in Game 2.
When he found out he was starting, Woodruff admitted he thought he would be more nervous. Instead he realized he could be playing in his last college game so it was important to him that he just go out and enjoy it.
Everyone involved with the Virginia baseball program will say Thomas Woodruff is a great guy and teammate. He’s a good solider and does what the team needs from practice to game time. But this Game 2 will be one that will remain burned into his memory.
“It's definitely a little surreal. But I think the approach that I try to take in practice and treat it like a game and treat it like every repetition matters,” Woodruff said. “You get out there and everything is just like practice, and it kind of slows down and you don't expect it, but you know and you're confident in your abilities and you can trust your preparation much better.”
Woodruff’s performance may have surprised some people, but his head coach expected a great effort win or lose from the outfielder.
“I know what [Haseley and Woodruff] are made of. I know the kind of people they are. I know how much they care about their teammates. I know that they'll go out there and give us everything that they have,” O’Connor said. “I don't like to put percentages on things could this possibly happen. Anything can happen. And it doesn't surprise me because I know how hard these two individuals work and I know how much their teammates mean to them.”
Once again, it is Virginia and Vanderbilt to play a winner-take-all game for the national championship. First pitch comes Wednesday night at 8 p.m. ET.
“Tomorrow will be no different than any game that we've played here in Omaha this year. I'm going to say it again: This team's earned the right to play another ballgame, and that's how they will treat it,” O’Connor said. “I don't think they'll put any more into it than they have at this point. Certainly we're going to have to play great baseball to beat a great Vanderbilt club. And they'll just continue to go out there and play the best they can and hopefully in the end have a chance to win the ballgame.”