OMAHA, Neb. -- The opening game of the College World Series was what it was expected it to be -- a pitchers’ duel -- especially through the game’s early innings.
“Connor [Jones] and Carson [Fulmer] really were buckling down and making a lot of big pitches,” Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor said. “I was really proud of Connor, and I thought he really battled and gave it his best out there and gave us a chance. Certainly there in the sixth and seventh inning, Vanderbilt was able to punch a few through and open the game up a little bit.”Jones wasn’t as sharp as Vanderbilt’s Fulmer on an inning-by-inning basis, but the Virginia right-hander went toe-to-toe with the All-American early in the game. Jones and the Virginia defense would bend but not break through the first half of the game. The Commodores were able to get two men on base in the second inning but Virginia’s hard-nosed defense prevented them from scoring.
“It was just a heck of a pitcher's duel there to start off with, especially deep into the ballgame,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “I thought Connor Jones did an outstanding job of just containing us, keeping us off rhythm. We left the zone a few times in the first few innings and we were a little bit snake-bit at times. We had some base-running breakdowns that may have cost us a run early. Whether that would have happened, I don't know. The first one would have, we would have scored a run there.”
Jones contained the Commodores offensive attack though the sixth inning, when freshman Will Toffey smacked a double down the left field line to drive in two runs.
“It was just a pitch and a place," Toffey said. “It just happened that way. It was just an elevated fastball that was out over the plate and up, and I did my best to shoot it that way, and that's all."
It was Jones’ first loss since an April 11 defeat against Georgia Tech. The Virginia righty believed he threw his best stuff to Toffey.
“I was obviously going to try to get ahead in the count early,” he said. “But I was going to try to get after him. It's not like there's a place to put him or anything. I thought I made a pretty good pitch, and he just got a hold of it. And you've got to credit him for that. He squared up and hit it well, and unfortunately it found a hole for us. But credit him. He squared up and got a hold of it pretty good.”
Jones had a nice mix of four pitches working the majority of the night, and he has some advice for whoever starts Game 2.
“Personally I always just try to go right after guys. But I felt really confident in my split tonight. I thought that was really good,” he said. “I kind of struggled to find my slider for a while, but it came around. But the guys moving forward, you've got to go right after them, and you can't help them out by falling behind in counts and stuff like that. You've got to get right after them and don't let them beat you.”
Despite being down 1-0 in this series, Virginia is confident they will bounce back and win Game 2. And for good reason, since the Hoos have never lost two consecutive contests in their 17 games in Omaha.
“I'm proud of our guys. We've been in this situation before this year,” O’Connor said. “Certainly we were in this situation going into Saturday against Florida, that if you win, you get to continue your season on, if you don't, it's over. So this team has handled that kind of adversity all year long, and I would imagine tomorrow night would be no different.”
The Virginia pitching situation has nagged the Hoos since Nathan Kirby went down with an injury back in April. Kirby did return in Game 11 of the CWS, but Virginia lost that game to Florida, forcing an elimination game with the Gators.
Virginia defeated Florida in Game 13. The coaching staff has been forced to get very creative and very thoughtful in how they approach the Cavaliers’ rotation. O’Connor said on Sunday he thinks this is the best job pitching coach Karl Kuhn has done for Virginia in the 12 years he has been with the program.
Immediately following the game, O’Connor had no idea who would start.
“Coach Kuhn and I will certainly talk this evening and decide what the right thing to do is. It will not be Brandon Waddell. But we'll decide,” O’Connor said. “We've got some good options and we're certainly going to need to piece it together. We knew that coming into this three-game series that that was going to be the case. So I don't really know right now.”
When asked about the Cavaliers' Game 2 starter during a media session on Sunday, Kuhn smiled, "I'll jump off that bridge when I get to it."