College World Series: Virginia looking to break favorites’ title drought

The Virginia Cavaliers beat the Ole Miss Rebels 2-1 with the first walk-off hit in the College World Series since 2011.

Steven Branscombe/Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Spor

OMAHA, Nebraska — Are the ghosts of Omaha haunting College World Series favorites? Is there even reason to believe in baseball ghosts?

"A lot of people do," Virginia pitcher Nathan Kirby said. "But they’ve put us in a position, especially in the fall, to kind of numb us from that, to try not to worry about anything outside the white lines."

The last time the top overall national seed actually won the College World Series was 1999, when the Miami Hurricanes pulled it off. The following year, No. 2-seeded LSU was the highest national seed in Omaha and won the whole thing.

Since then, the highest national seed remaining has gone 0-fer titles. A 2-seed, a 3-seed, a 4-seed, and two 5-seeds have been crowned.

The place to be? Unseeded.

UCLA won the 2013 championship without being a national seed. Its championship series dance partner was unseeded Mississippi State. The Bruins became the eighth unseeded team to win the title in the last decade. It’s like the ghost of Johnny Rosenblatt is still upset about the demolition of his stadium and wreaks havoc on the favorites while aiding the underdog.

Fast forward to 2014 and Virginia is considered by many the favorite to win this CWS. The Cavs, the double-elimination tournament’s highest-seeded team at No. 3 overall, fought off the ghosts Sunday in a 2-1 win against Ole Miss.

Holding a 1-0 lead in both teams’ CWS opener, John La Prise was called out on an infield hit in the sixth inning when video clearly showed he was safe. That cost the Cavs a run as Kenny Towns was stuck on third, despite a leadoff double. The inning ended on a chop that Ole Miss third baseman Austin Anderson skillfully scooped and fired to first.

Ole Miss center fielder Auston Bousfield, the same dude who missed a lazy fly in Lafayette a week ago, mimicked Willie Mays to strand another runner at third, keeping Ole Miss down only a run to end the seventh inning. After preventing the ACC powerhouse from extending the lead, the Rebels eventually tied it. Virginia left 11 on base.

One of only two national seeds to make it to TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Virginia features six players taken in the first 10 rounds of the MLB Draft this season. Three were chosen in the first round: closer Nick Howard at No. 19 and outfielder Derek Fisher and first baseman Mike Papi back-to-back at 37 and 38. A solid favorite.

And it was Papi that delivered Sunday’s game-winning walk-off with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Curse broken? Not so fast.

"At this point in the season, it’s tough to really put someone at the top and say they’re the favorites," Papi said, "because it’s baseball and anything can happen, depending on who comes out and throws the best and makes the best contact."

Virginia has been here before and it didn’t end well. The Cavs were the overall No. 1 seed in 2011 and were bounced in the semifinals after a pair of losses against four-seed South Carolina, the last one coming in walk-off fashion — the last time that’s happened in the College World Series before Sunday night. 

Ole Miss had nine players drafted, the most in college baseball, so it wasn’t going to be easy to break the curse against the Rebels. But maybe that’s what happened in front of the 23,393 in attendance. Still, the numbers don’t lie and the favorites haven’t fared that well in Omaha.

In 2012, only four national seeds made it. Top-seeded Florida was two and through. In 2013, only three national seeds made the trip here. Top seed North Carolina was ousted by UCLA in the semifinals. Things are trending toward the underdogs. The two national seeds in this tournament — the other being No. 7 TCU — is a record low. The Horned Frogs won Sunday’s opener against Texas Tech.

But history is on neither of their sides. Not even an All-American pitcher who hurled a gem could save them it seemed. Kirby gave up one hit in seven innings and was a no decision.

Ole Miss is good enough to win this thing, too. The Rebels are in Omaha for the first time in 42 years, a history of heartache and falling short in four Super Regionals under Mike Bianco. For much of Sunday night, Omaha history seemed on the Rebels’ side, anxiously antagonizing Virginia and the numeral in front of its name. History tried to help Ole Miss. The Rebels didn’t cooperate. That may turn their own haunted history back against them.

The win leaves Virginia in a good spot, but keep in mind that this event’s opening ceremonies took place here on Friday, the 13th. If Virginia doesn’t close this out as the favorite — next against TCU on Tuesday. — one can only assume the Omahaunting will continue.