Virginia baseball on cusp of College World Series title series after dramatic win over TCU


Virginia players celebrate a 3-2 win over TCU in 15 innings. The game lasted nearly five hours. The Cavaliers are one win from reaching the College World Series championship series. (Eric Francis/AP)

Members of the Virginia baseball team walked onto the artificial turf at Creighton University’s baseball facility Wednesday afternoon, bags over their shoulders and bags under their eyes 13 hours after a 3-2 win against TCU that won’t soon be forgotten.

Center fielder Brandon Downes said his legs were heavy and his mind on the verge of exhaustion upon returning to the team’s hotel in the wee hours of the previous night. He was tired, but the adrenaline of a second walk-off win in as many games would not allow him to shut his eyes. So he and roommate Matt Thaiss stayed awake with “South Park” on the television and relived all the moments that went into a 15-inning classic that took nearly five hours to complete and ended just before 1 a.m. back in Charlottesville.

“It took every guy we had. It was a crazy game,” Downes said. “When you think about it, it doesn’t get any bigger than this.”

After the fourth-longest College World Series game, Virginia is closer to its first national championship than ever before. The Cavaliers (51-14) will face TCU or Mississippi on Friday night needing just one win to qualify for this event’s championship series. They would have to lose consecutive games — something they’ve done just once this season — to fail to advance.

With two days off, Coach Brian O’Connor can set his pitching rotation and likely will turn to McLean native Josh Sborz on Friday, saving ace Nathan Kirby for a potential elimination game Saturday or the start of the championship series Monday.

That, though, was a topic for another time. Wednesday’s practice was about savoring the exploits needed Tuesday night.

There were the season-high four scoreless innings closer Nick Howard pitched, the two runs and three hits produced by leadoff hitter Branden Cogswell, the game-winning sacrifice fly from freshman Daniel Pinero and the dart Downes fired from center field on a put-out at third base that stymied a 12th-inning rally.

“Those are the kinds of things that have to happen — a throw like that, a play like that — to advance in Omaha,” O’Connor said. “And more of those things are gonna have to happen to win a national championship. . . . You have to have some good fortune.

Such stories seemed endless Wednesday, like the one about senior Artie Lewicki. The winning pitcher in both games, he is one victory from tying a College World Series record — all the more remarkable considering he underwent Tommy John surgery in the summer of 2012, made just two appearances a season ago and only moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen in the past week. And yet there he was Tuesday night, setting down TCU with 94-mph fastballs on one day’s rest.

The appearance of junior walk-on Thomas Woodruff, who entered as a pinch runner for catcher Nate Irving to score the winning run in both of Virginia’s College World Series games, may be more improbable. The Clifton native was so seldom used during the regular season — he hadn’t played since April 23 and doubles as one of the team’s bullpen catchers — that his parents didn’t make the trip to Omaha.

“I know they’re watching at home. I’m sure I’ve got a text message waiting for me,” Woodruff said Tuesday night.

The same could be said for Irving, removed from the starting lineup for two games during last week’s super regionals due to a slump at the plate.

In two games here, though, he has drawn a leadoff walk to set up first baseman Mike Papi’s walk-off double in a win over Mississippi on Sunday and then produced a ground-rule double to start the 15th-inning rally against TCU.

It prompted a simple question as Tuesday night turned to Wednesday morning: Is this suddenly a team of destiny?

“Maybe,” Irving said with a grin. “Maybe.”

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