A Virginia College World Series primer: Do the Cavs have what it takes for a national title?


Nathan Kirby, right, and the Virginia baseball team are in Omaha, Neb., aiming for their first College World Series title. (Pat Jarrett/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The College World Series is unlike any other baseball event in the country, and it’s not just the fanfare that greets each team in Omaha or the stakes. Even the double-elimination format, with built in days off, is un­or­tho­dox — a fact not lost on Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor as he readied this week to face Mississippi on Sunday night.

“You can win the national championship with five pitchers if your starters are high quality starters,” he noted.

Essentially, O’Connor explained, his team will need to win a regional and a super regional in order to turn the program’s third trip to Omaha in six years into a national title. That quest begins against the Rebels, making their first appearance in the College World Series since 1972. The Cavaliers bested Mississippi in a super regional series back in 2009 to secure their first berth in the College World Series.

First pitch is slated for 8 p.m., although severe storms — and a possible tornado — in Omaha could change the schedule if Louisville and Vanderbilt can’t complete their game Saturday night. We’ll keep you updated, but here’s a few things to keep an eye on in the meantime.

Kirby’s comeback

Sophomore Nathan Kirby has been one of Virginia’s biggest revelations, emerging as a bona fide ace. But the Midlothian, Va., native is coming off his shortest outing of the year, allowing seven hits and a season-high five runs in a loss to Maryland in Game 1 of last weekend’s super regional. What did he learn from that start?

“Don’t leave the ball up because they were hitting anything I left down the middle,” Kirby said.

He’ll need his best stuff — Kirby threw a no hitter at Pittsburgh back in April and pitched eight shutout innings in a 3-0 NCAA tournament regional win over Arkansas earlier this month — if Virginia is to quell a powerful Mississippi lineup that led the Southeastern Conference in batting average (.303) and finished second in homeruns and runs scored. The huge dimensions at TD Ameritrade Park — 335 feet along both lines, 375 feet in the gaps and 408 feet in center field — should help.

Keep on hitting

Many predicted Virginia’s lineup would be an offensive juggernaut this season, but the Cavaliers never could live up to that hype in the regular season. But they’ve tallied 44 runs over the past six games and are currently hitting .316 during the postseason, a trend that will need to continue against Ole Miss starter Chris Ellis (10-2, 2.45 ERA).

First baseman Mike Papi and right fielder Joe McCarthy have been a catalysts all season, but now left fielder Derek Fisher and center fielder Brandon Downes, among others, have found a rhythm at the plate.

“I said it going into the NCAA regional that I felt like our offense was gonna do it and they were gonna click and they have,” O’Connor said. “If we can keep that kind of momentum going offensively and our starters can go out and do what they’ve done all year, we’ll have as good a shot as anybody to win this thing.”

Bolstered bullpen

With so much time between games, O’Connor hinted this week one of his starting pitchers would likely move to the bullpen for the first week of this tournament. Kirby will start Game 1 and sophomore Brandon Waddell has been in the rotation for two years now. That likely means either sophomore Josh Sborz or senior Artie Lewicki will serve as a reliever. Lewicki already pitched 3 1/3 innings in relief during a Game 2 win over Maryland, while Sborz got the start and threw seven shutout innings when the Cavaliers beat the Terrapins in Game 3. No matter what, O’Connor will still turn to set-up man Whit Mayberry and closer Nick Howard late.

Ole Miss players to watch

Senior catcher Will Allen (.345, 7 HRs, 61 RBI)

Junior 1B Sikes Orvis (.295, 14 HRs, 51 RBI)

Senior 3B Austin Anderson (.331, 5 HRs, 41 RBI)

Junior CF Austin Bousfield (.349, 6 HRs, 50 RBI)

Projected Virginia lineup

1. 2B Branden Cogswell (.292, 0 HRs, 21 RBI)

2. SS Daniel Pinero (.266, 0 HRs, 19 RBI)

3. 1B Mike Papi (.311, 11 HRs, 54 RBI)

4. RF Joe McCarthy (.305, 6 HRs, 46 RBI)

5. LF Derek Fisher (.285, 3 HRs, 26 RBI)

6. 3B Kenny Towns (.273, 2 HRs, 33 RBI)

7. DH John La Prise (.368, 1 HR, 15 RBI)

8. CF Brandon Downes (.233, 7 HRs, 37 RBI)

9. C Robbie Coman (.271, 1 HR, 13 RBI) or Nate Irving (.236, 1 HR, 17 RBI)

SP Nathan Kirby (9-2, 1.73 ERA)

Mark Giannotto covers Virginia and Virginia Tech for The Washington Post.
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