OMAHA — Before every Virginia baseball practice at Davenport Field this season, the distance from Charlottesville to Omaha — 1,186 miles — has been posted on the scoreboard. Before every one of their 68 games this season, the Cavaliers would huddle together outside the dugout and say the number in unison, another reminder of just how lofty the goals for this team have been since the preseason.
The road to Omaha can be long and winding, though with no end in sight at times. And now, it all comes down to one night for Virginia.
The Cavaliers will take on Vanderbilt on Wednesday in Game 3 of the College World Series finals with the winner capturing its first national championship in baseball. The stakes could not be higher.
Over the course of the first two games of this series, Virginia has been the better team except for one disastrous third inning when ace Nathan Kirby, so good all year, inexplicably imploded during a nine-run meltdown in Game 1. Otherwise, the Cavaliers have decimated Vanderbilt pitching as their own hurlers returned to their dominant ways.
Virginia has collected 28 hits and scored 15 runs in 18 innings against the Commodores, and everyone but slugger Mike Papi — the team’s best hitter the past two seasons — has collected at least one RBI. It’s the sort of well-rounded lineup many predicted the Cavaliers would have this year, and after an underwhelming regular season, they’ve done their damage on college baseball’s biggest stage.
“I remember back a month and a half, two months ago, [hitting coach Kevin McMullen] and I had a conversation and we just believed . . . that at some point this would all come together and we’d have a real complete lineup that we feel we’re capable of,” Coach Brian O’Connor said Tuesday night after Game 2. “Fortunately, it’s shown up here in Omaha, and fortunately it’s shown up in the last two ballgames.”
Virginia’s pitching staff, meanwhile, could not be in a better position heading into Game 3. Sophomore Brandon Waddell’s masterful complete game performance Tuesday means reliever Artie Lewicki and closer Nick Howard have yet to be used in the championship series, and both will likely figure into Wednesday’s action with McLean native Josh Sborz (6-4, 2.84 ERA) scheduled to start on four days’ rest.
Together, the trio has yet to allow an earned run in more than 36 innings of postseason play.
“Not having touched Lewicki or Howard in these first two ballgames is important,” O’Connor said. “It gives us an ability to . . . chop the game up or do whatever we need to do to win the game.”
Vanderbilt, meanwhile, is expected to counter with sophomore Carson Fulmer (7-1, 2.00 ERA), although Coach Tim Corbin will certainly take an all hands on deck approach as well with Fulmer pitching on three days’ rest. Fulmer, who began the year as a reliever before moving into the starting rotation in April, comes armed with a 98-mph fastball. But he has allowed four runs in 9 2 / 3 innings during two starts in the College World Series and will need to return to form to prevent a Cavalier coronation at TD Ameritrade Park.
Whatever happens, though, this journey now comes down to one game, and the Cavaliers’ superior play so far becomes a moot point. Both Virginia and Vanderbilt sit just 27 outs from a national championship.