Pitching sends Virginia to CWS championship series
Friday's rain merely delayed the inevitable as Virginia shut down Ole Miss 4-1 and advanced to the championship series of the College World Series.
Virginia's Brandon Downes (10) celebrates after scoring a run with right fielder Joe McCarthy (center).
Bruce Thorson / USA TODAY Sports
By Brandon Speck
OMAHA, Neb. — Look "Hoos" playing for a national championship.
Virginia eliminated Ole Miss 4-1 on Saturday in the College World Series, punching its ticket to Monday's championship series opener against Vanderbilt.
Virginia has won 20 NCAA championships — in men's soccer, women's lacrosse, men's lacrosse, women's cross country, rowing, boxing and men's tennis. Yeah, boxing.
That's what the Virginia pitchers have been doing to opposing hitters, knocking them right back into the dugout with Mike Tyson-esque right uppercuts.
Virginia has won seven of eight games, mostly with stellar pitching. Cavs' pitchers are taking a 0.55 ERA into the series, having allowed only two earned runs in 33 innings in Omaha. The Cavs' bullpen has allowed three runs in 30 NCAA Tournament innings, not one single run in 14 innings at TD Ameritrade Park. That's seven base runners allowed through 47 batters faced.
The College World Series record for lowest ERA in a series (minimum four games) belongs to California — 0.60. The Bears gave up three earned runs in 45 innings in 1957.
"Our team, these last three weeks, has played with an incredible amount of poise and I really believe at championship time, it takes poise and patience to prevail," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said.
Sunday is an off-day in Omaha. Monday, Virginia will likely turn to ace Nathan Kirby, who O'Connor said there was zero percent chance of throwing Saturday. The chance exists for Kirby to be needed Wednesday if there is a Game 3.
A rested Kirby is a dangerous Kirby. In his only appearance in Omaha, the sophomore shut down Ole Miss last Sunday, with seven innings of one-hit baseball. Kirby is 9-2 with a 1.70 ERA in 17 appearances. He has struck out 108 and walked 28 in 111 innings.
His team is poised for what could be the Cavs' first baseball trophy. Virginia has been to Omaha three times now (2009, 2011), this the first time in the title series.
O'Connor, always articulate, smiled when asked about the amount of pressure on his team to win it all.
"I don't think there's any pressure," O'Connor said. "We've never been in this scenario before. Maybe if we had been in this situation multiple times before and hadn't done it. We're not really concerned about it. Were concerned about playing a good baseball game on Monday night."
So maybe Virginia isn't trying to get over a new hump. But let's say it was a hump. O'Connor's teams — this his 11th — have been known to find ways to climb humps.
"I'll tell you, our first five or six years here, we were in an NCAA Regional every year and there were a lot of people saying, 'What does it take to get over the hump and get to Omaha?' We figured that out," O'Connor said. "This team isn't concerned right now with 'Do we need to get over the hump?' We're just concerned about coming out and playing tough and playing a good baseball game on Monday night."
Saturday afternoon showed all the qualities O'Connor talked about. Another was resilience. When a rain barrage delayed Friday's game until Saturday, Virginia starter Josh Sborz came right back after pitching a single inning Friday. He threw five innings of four-hit ball. His lone run was unearned. He struck out four and walked four.
Daniel Pinero handed Ole Miss a base-runner in the second inning when he got the ball out of his glove a split second too late to get a hustling J.B. Woodman. A run followed for a 1-0 Rebels lead. Pinero later singled and scored Virginia's seventh-inning insurance run.
Nine-hole hitter Robbie Coman struck out with runners at second and third and one out in the resumed second inning. He went on to drive in two runs for a 2-1 lead with a single in the fourth inning. He also had a double.
Joe McCarthy failed to get a sac bunt down with runners on first and second in the fifth inning, then added the double that scored Pinero in the seventh.
Bandon Downes has been dealing with a wrist injury all season, then "rises up on the biggest stage," O'Connor said, and had two of Virginia's eight hits.
"Everybody talks about it all the time that the game of baseball is how you handle and deal with failure and how much you can learn from it and how much better these baseball players will be as people for having gone through the failure that the game sends up," O'Connor said. "I just think about this ball game."
O'Connor feels right at home here, a former Creighton Blue Jay, born just across the state line in Council Bluffs, Iowa. His Cavaliers are a long way from home, 1,186 miles to be exact, but two more wins and his team will have forever made its mark O'Connor's hometown.