OMAHA — The night initially held such promise for the Virginia baseball team.
For a change, the gusts of wind that wreaked havoc on hitters during this College World Series had disappeared. So the Cavaliers’ lineup mashed like few do in cavernous TD Ameritrade Park, and for a time, their ace looked dominant yet again.
But it only took one disastrous sequence to ruin the evening.
Virginia simply could not overcome a nightmarish third inning, falling to Vanderbilt, 9-8, in Game 1 of the best-of-three College World Series finals Monday. The Cavaliers will now need to win two games in a row against the Commodores to end the ACC baseball’s 59-year national championship drought.
Even a valiant comeback attempt — Virginia (52-15) scored the final six runs of the night, out-hit Vanderbilt, 15-6, and left the tying run at third base in the bottom of the eighth inning — could not conceal the stunning meltdown that preceded it. And there were few warning signs early on.
In the bottom of the first inning, left fielder Derek Fisher delivered a two-out, two-RBI single to give the Cavaliers a quick 2-0 cushion. The No. 37 overall pick in this year’s Major League Baseball draft, Fisher had been 1 for 14 in three College World Series games before the at-bat.
Starting pitcher Nathan Kirby, meanwhile, looked to be replicating the seven-inning, one-hit performance that paced Virginia to a 2-1 win over Mississippi to begin the College World Series. He struck out four of the first seven hitters he faced, the last one coming on a change-up with so much late movement that designated hitter Chris Harvey could only flail his bat in desperation.
But then, all of a sudden, Kirby’s command vanished with one out in the top of the third.
He walked Vanderbilt catcher Jason Delray on four pitches, gave up a double to third baseman Tyler Campbell and then walked the bases loaded. A visit from pitching coach Karl Kuhn did nothing to calm down the co-ACC pitcher of the year and the floodgates opened.
An infield single by Commodores left fielder Bryan Reynolds cut Virginia’s lead to 2-1. Kirby then issued three walks in a row as Vanderbilt tallied three more runs on free passes. An error by first baseman Mike Papi compounded the problems, and Cavaliers Coach Brian O’Connor had seen enough with Virginia trailing, 5-2, in minutes.
He pulled Kirby after his shortest outing of the season. The sophomore threw 12 strikes and 24 balls in the third inning, allowed a season-high five earned runs and issued a career-high four walks.
“I just couldn’t find my release point,” Kirby said. “It hadn’t happened all year, but it happened tonight.”
But the carnage was only beginning. After a sacrifice foul out sent another Vanderbilt run across home plate, reliever Whit Mayberry hit Harvey with a pitch to load the bases again and Campbell proceeded to rip another double down the left field line to clear them.
When the frame finally ended on a groundout by Dansby Swanson, the numbers were gruesome for Virginia: nine runs, 13 Vanderbilt batters and just three hits. It was more runs than the Cavaliers had allowed in any single game this season and the most in a half-inning since the College World Series moved to TD Ameritrade Park in 2011.
Virginia entered Monday threatening to break this event’s ERA record having allowed just two earned over the previous 33 innings. Sophomore lefty Brandon Waddell is slated to start Game 2.
“The game was defined in the third inning,” O’Connor said. “Nathan Kirby has done the job all year long for this team . . . and the third inning, he kind of came unraveled.”
The Cavaliers, though, refused to let this game to turn into a rout. They scored three runs on four straight two-out singles in the bottom of the third inning and added two more during a two-out rally in the fifth.
The rally only ended when Papi’s bid at a go-ahead three-run home run died at the warning track. “I was jumping up and down,” Downes said. “I thought it was gone.”
As Virginia’s bullpen stabilized the situation — Mayberry and senior Austin Young combined to produce six-straight zeroes on the scoreboard after the third inning – the Cavaliers again came inches from coming all the way back in the eighth.
After two consecutive singles to start the frame, a Papi sacrifice bunt advanced the runners to second and third base. A sharp grounder by sophomore Joe McCarthy caromed off Vanderbilt pitcher Joe Kilichowski and into the hands of shortstop Vince Conde.
Another run scored, but that would prove to be the Cavaliers’ last gasp on a night that ultimately came down to one frustrating frame.