OMAHA, Neb. -- Through Virginia’s 2015 season, the pieces of the puzzle rarely formed the complete picture. They all came together in Omaha, and every one played a part in winning a national championship.
The Cavaliers won the College World Series and ended Vanderbilt’s reign atop college baseball with a 4-2 win on Wednesday at TD Ameritrade Park, reversing the result on the same field a year ago. The same Cavaliers whose place in the NCAA tournament was no guarantee, and got a much-needed sweep in the final weekend of the regular season against North Carolina to help their cause. The same Cavaliers that went .500 (18-18) in March and April as they battled through injury after injury. The same Cavaliers who ended up as a No. 3 seed at the Lake Elsinore Regional.
They have now won the baseball program’s first championship and captured the first title for the ACC since 1955.
“It's just amazing what a group of guys that stay together and play for each other and pick each other up and don't give up can accomplish,” head coach Brian O’Connor said. “And certainly we're very, very proud of this championship and feel very, very fortunate.”Josh Sborz, who was named the Most Outstanding Player on the College World Series, didn’t even play in the final game. Tuesday night, O’Connor said that Sborz would be unavailable after he pitched four innings in Virginia’s 3-0 win to force a third game. Sborz finished the College World Series with 13 shutout innings of relief and three wins, tying a CWS record.
Virginia didn’t win the title with quite the same late drama it had been used to through May and June. In all of its prior NCAA tournament wins, Virginia scored the go-ahead run in the sixth inning or later. The Cavaliers didn’t hold off the drama (as long) this time -- a run on the top of the fifth gave them the lead for good.
Wednesday night was Pavin Smith’s turn to rise to the occasion. After Vanderbilt took a quick 2-0 lead in the first four batters of the game, Smith came up after a Kenny Towns leadoff walk in the fourth inning and hit a home run that barely cleared the right-field fence to give pull the score even.
“I wasn't thinking about trying to hit a home run,” Smith said. “I was just trying to get on base, trying to extend the inning, trying to keep the rally going. When I hit it, I knew the wind was blowing out and I was just, like, telling it to go."
Another leadoff walk to Adam Haseley started off the top of the fifth, and Smith eventually brought him home on a single. The Hoos got one more on a Kenny Towns single in the seventh, and they had all the runs they would need.
Brandon Waddell, who was also named to the CWS All-Tournament Team, went seven innings for the win. After allowing two runs in the first, he allowed just three Commodores to reach base in his next six frames.
Virginia has won all five of Waddell’s starts in Omaha the past two years. The title winner was his school-record 53rd career start.
“I was just amazed that he was able to give us seven innings,” O'Connor said. “He had done his job. He had done everything that he could do. And certainly he'll go down as one of the great ones that's ever pitched in this program, and as big a game pitcher as you get.”
Then there’s southpaw Nathan Kirby, whose patience paid off. Kirby, a top starter for the Cavaliers at the beginning of the year, went out in April with a lat strain and returned just last Friday against Virginia. Had Virginia not reached Omaha, it would have been a season-ending injury for Kirby. As it worked out, not only did he get another chance, but he got the close on Wednesday night.
Coming in for Waddell in the eighth, Kirby used an elusive slider to get through the eighth and ninth. Five of his eight outs were strikeouts, including a looking strikeout of pinch hitter Kyle Smith to end the game, leading to a sea of orange jerseys converging on Kirby for the dogpile.“A couple days ago I felt like I was learning to ride a bike again, especially being out here in front of this big a crowd as we had and as great a team as Florida was,” Kirby said. “But tonight, starting and coming in for relief are two different things, I knew this was the last six outs of the season and I was going to go out and give it everything I could.”
There are the other position players on the All-Tournament Team -- shortstop Daniel Pinero, third baseman Kenny Towns and second baseman Ernie Clement. Pinero tied Vanderbilt’s Bryan Reynolds for the CWS lead with nine hits and his opportunistic baserunning played a major role in the Cavaliers’ first game in Omaha, a win against Arkansas. Towns, a senior who made a run-stopping diving play on Wednesday and continued his legend of “Mr. June” earlier in the tournament, was holding the trophy in his arms like a baby outside the locker rooms of TD Ameritrade Park. Clement was second on the team in Omaha with seven hits in 24 at-bats.
“We had a lot of ups and downs, during this year, but [the coaching staff] didn't expect less out of us,” Towns said “They kept their expectations high on us, and just told us to grind it out. And I think going through those ups and downs we were kind of able to become a tougher team, a more resilient team. And I think that showed for us in the postseason."
There is Haseley, the usual center fielder who pitched five shutout innings on Tuesday, was one of the heroes of the previous night. As was Thomas Woodruff, who had 12 hits all season before three in Game 2. There is Joe McCarthy, who missed the first two months of the season after back surgery, who hit a home run in the Arkansas game. There are Matt Thaiss and Robbie Coman, who went back and forth as the catcher this season while each dealt with injuries.
Through all of the struggles during the season, O’Connor and his players repeated all two weeks of the CWS that they never lost their focus. They didn’t let the losses of March and April let them change their approach -- they continued to do things their way and let the rest come together on their own.
“I'm just proud of these guys that they just hung in there” O’Connor said. “And it's an unbelievable example to people that if you stay together as a group, … I'm proud of them and couldn't have forecasted it, but we're darned glad we're sitting up here with this trophy.”