OMAHA — Hours before the Virginia baseball team advanced to its first College World Series finals Saturday afternoon, the situation appeared dire when pitching coach Karl Kuhn paced from the dugout to the mound.
Starter Josh Sborz kept throwing balls in the dirt, and catcher Robbie Coman couldn’t stop them from reaching the padded wall that serves as a backstop at TD Ameritrade Park. With the Cavaliers already trailing, runners on first and second base and just one out in the bottom of the third inning, Virginia’s entire defense huddled around Kuhn.
But he looked only at Sborz and Coman.
“Let them hit it,” Kuhn said sternly. “Go back to what got us here.”
The three-run rally that ultimately propelled Virginia to a 4-1 win over Mississippi wouldn’t come until the next half-inning, but those words set the stage for it all. The Cavaliers (52-14) will face Vanderbilt in a best-of-three series beginning Monday with a chance to become the first ACC team since Wake Forest in 1955 to win college baseball’s national championship.
But as Kuhn spoke, none of that seemed certain.
Already, the Cavaliers had seen this game suspended after a 93-minute weather delay Friday night. When play resumed Saturday in the top of the second inning, they had runners on first and second with nobody out but couldn’t score. After a sacrifice bunt moved the runners to second and third, Coman struck out looking against Rebels reliever Scott Weathersby, inserted in place of Friday starter Jeremy Massie. Virginia junior Branden Cogswell ended the threat with a groundout.
The momentum had swung to Mississippi (48-21), which proceeded to take a 1-0 lead after Cavaliers shortstop Daniel Pinero double-clutched a routine grounder in the bottom of the inning, and Virginia conceded a run to Rebels senior Will Allen on a double-steal attempt.
It only became more precarious in the third inning, with Sborz laboring and Coman looking shaken by his strikeout. But then Kuhn, delivering a message he often repeats to Sborz, changed the dynamic.
“Right after that, it kind of just fell right into place,” said Sborz, a McLean native who pitched seven scoreless innings when Virginia clinched its super regional win over Maryland earlier this month.
Sborz struck out the next batter he faced, loaded the bases with a walk and then watched third baseman Kenny Towns snag a line drive by Allen — “He crushed it,” Sborz noted — and the Cavaliers had escaped the jam without allowing another run.
“If he tries to miss those bats, we’ve got balls in the dirt. We’ve got balls flying to the backstop. We’ve got guys running all around the base paths ,” Kuhn said after the game. “He gets contact, and the baseball gods say, ‘Here, man,’ and it lands in someone’s glove for you. He got rewarded for going back to our plan.”
It only made sense then that Coman would get his own form of redemption when Virginia came to the plate in the fourth inning against Mississippi ace Chris Ellis. A well-timed hit-and-run single by center fielder Brandon Downes advanced sophomore Joe McCarthy to third base, a walk issued to designated hitter John La Prise loaded the bases and up strode Coman, Virginia’s No. 9 hitter.
Coman then sent the second pitch he saw into center field for a two-run single. A flawlessly executed safety squeeze by Cogswell gave the Cavaliers a 3-1 lead.
“You get second opportunities in this game, and I really wanted to take advantage of it,” said Coman, a part-time player who has caught all of Sborz’s starts this year.
More than enough runs had been scored. Sborz, who threw seven pitches Friday night, cruised through the fifth inning and did not allow an earned run. Senior Artie Lewicki and closer Nick Howard took care of the rest.
The Cavaliers’ pitching staff has allowed just two earned runs in 33 innings in the College World Series and is on pace to break the event’s ERA record (0.60), set by California in 1957. After the third inning Saturday, Mississippi had just one runner reach second base.
When it was over, Coach Brian O’Connor and his team took part in a muted celebration. There is more work to be done for a team that started the season ranked No. 1 in the country. But O’Connor, now in his 11th season at Virginia, did not let the moment pass without some reflection.
He talked about Pinero’s resiliency despite some uncharacteristic errors this week. He mentioned Downes, who battled a wrist injury all year only to deliver two hits in this game, and McCarthy, who popped up a bunt in the fifth inning only to deliver an insurance run in the seventh with an RBI double.
And then he brought up Sborz and Coman and how he never lost faith when Saturday took a turn for the worst.
“I was confident that some way we’d figure out a way,” O’Connor said.
●VANDERBILT 4, TEXAS 3: Tyler Campbell beat out an infield single with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning to knock in the winning run and lift the Commodores into the championship series against the Cavaliers.