June 13, 2015 - June 24, 2015 • TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha • Attendance: 353,378
BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
A Virginia team that looked dead in the water at the start of May ended the season Wednesday night with a dogpile in Omaha.
The Cavaliers completed an unlikely run through the NCAA tournament with a 4-2 victory over defending champion Vanderbilt in front of 17,689 at TD Ameritrade Park. The victory in the third game of the best-of-three CWS final was Virginia’s 10th of the NCAA tournament.
The Cavaliers had to watch Vanderbilt celebrate a championship last June as the Commodores won the final in three games. Wednesday, it was Virginia’s turn to celebrate its first national championship.
“Not many people thought this could happen,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “This was an unbelievable example of what can happen if you have a group of guys that stay together, that work hard and are passionate about what they’re trying to accomplish.
“A group that just fights and won’t go away. You need some breaks, and we certainly got some in Omaha. I’m proud of them. I couldn’t have forecasted this, but I’m darn glad we’re sitting up here with this trophy.”
O’Connor’s team had to battle injuries that took some of its better players off the field and threatened to derail its season. At the start of May, the Cavaliers were in danger of not qualifying for the ACC tournament.
On June 24, they became the first ACC team since Wake Forest in 1955 to win the CWS.
They accomplished that feat with some gutty pitching by Brandon Waddell and some clutch hitting, especially by freshman Pavin Smith. Waddell, pitching on three days rest, spotted Vanderbilt a 2-0 lead in the first inning before clamping down.
He allowed two hits and three base runners after the first inning. He retired the last 11 batters he faced.
“It was just a matter of taking a breath, getting your mind right and simplifying things,” Waddell said. “I knew what I had to do. It’s a matter of going out there and executing, so I got focused back on those things.
“I knew 2-0 wasn’t going to be the final score. I knew our offense was going to score. It was a matter of trying to keep them to two and keep our team in the ballgame as long as I could.”
Waddell had pitched twice in bracket play, turning in a superb seven innings of two-hit baseball in the second round against Florida. He was back on the mound, on four days rest, in Saturday’s bracket championship game win over the Gators.
O’Connor knew it was asking a lot to send Waddell back out there for Wednesday’s game.
“I knew we’d get his best,” O’Connor said. “I knew he was going to give us everything he had. He was up in the zone in the first inning, and they did a nice job of executing and getting the hits to score a couple of runs.
“He made an adjustment to get the ball back down in the zone. I was just amazed that he was able to give us seven innings, but that was it. He had done his job.”
Waddell handed a two-run lead over to Nathan Kirby, the Cavaliers’ No. 1 starter before a shoulder injury sidelined him in mid-April. Kirby did not pitch again until Friday, when he lasted 22⁄3 innings against Florida.
“A couple of days ago, I felt like I was learning to ride a bike again,” said Kirby, referring to the start he made against the Gators. “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 had.”
Kirby got five of those six outs with strikeouts. He struck out three Vanderbilt hitters in the eighth inning to negate a one-out walk. He opened the ninth with a strikeout and then got a ground-ball out.
Penn Murfee singled to keep Vanderbilt’s hopes alive, but Kirby got pinch-hitter Kyle Smith looking at strike three to finish off Vanderbilt’s season at 51-21.
The Commodores had won their first nine games in the NCAA tournament before losing back-to-back games to Virginia. Adam Haseley and Josh Sborz combined on a 3-0 shutout to set the stage for Wednesday’s decisive contest.
Sborz, who won three games and saved another in Omaha, was named the most outstanding player of the CWS.
“That was a very gutty, gutty effort by their team and their pitching staff,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “I thought Waddell, in a lot of ways, was left for dead, but he just got himself up for the fifth, sixth and seventh. He turned the game around.
“Kirby pitched with a lot of adrenalin. He just shut us down. You have to give them a lot of credit.”
Virginia got itself back in the game when Smith blasted a two-run homer off Vanderbilt starter Walker Buehler in the fourth. Buehler, who had pitched brilliantly in the bracket championship game win over TCU, walked Kenny Towns before Smith launched his seventh homer of the season into the right-field bleachers.
“I wasn’t 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.”
Smith struck again with two outs in the fifth, lacing a two-out single into left field to score Haseley. Another two-out hit in the seventh, this one by Towns, brought in Virginia’s fourth run.
Towns, Waddell and Kirby were among the Virginia players who watched last June as Vanderbilt celebrated the championship it won with a 3-2 victory in the decisive game.
“I can still picture that happening,” said Waddell, who improved to 5-5 with the victory. “I pictured it for a while after it did happen. It’s tough. But at some point, you’ve got to go back to work.
“You’ve got to take the experience and the lessons learned and go out and try to get back. We worked really hard in the offseason.”
All that work appeared for naught when the injuries started to mount. The Cavaliers refused to fold, and they managed to grind their way to 44 wins. Virginia’s 44-24 championship record marked the fewest wins by a national champion since Southern California won the 1968 title with 43 victories.
“The one thing Coach O’Connor and the other coaches kept preaching to us is that we had to just grind through it,” Towns said. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs during the year, but they didn’t expect less of us.
“They kept their expectations high. I think going through those ups and downs we became a tougher team, a more resilient team. I think that showed for us in the postseason.”
Kade Scivicque, C, LSU
Zander Wiel, 1B, Vanderbilt
Ernie Clement, 2B, Virginia
Kenny Towns, 3B, Virginia
Daniel Pinero, SS, Virginia
Bryan Reynolds, OF, Vanderbilt
Harrison Bader, OF, Florida
Jacob Heyward, OF, Miami
Connor Wanhanen, DH, TCU
Josh Sborz, P, Virginia
Brandon Waddell, P, Virginia