National championship trophy in tow, Virginia’s baseball team landed in Charlottesville around 4:30 p.m. Thursday after an extended stay in Omaha. The Cavaliers boarded a bus and continued their near-24-hour celebration at John Paul Jones Arena, where several thousand fans waited for them, probably not quite as groggy as the players themselves.
“They’re young,” Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor said. “Sleep’s overrated. Certainly, the emotion and the high of accomplishing what we accomplished [Wednesday] night, it’s tough to get sleep.”
Arriving at Davenport Field this time last year was a bittersweet memory for the Cavaliers. Though the Cavaliers were overwhelmed by the fan support, they also were still mourning a one-run loss to Vanderbilt in the decisive Game 3 of the College World Series final.
That team, stocked with major league talent that had the Cavaliers playing like the best team in college baseball all season, looked like it should have won a national championship. This team looked like the underdog, a last-minute entrant into the ACC and NCAA tournaments after injuries sidelined position players for a combined 146 games. Virginia’s 44 wins, the last of which was a 4-2 victory over the Commodores on Wednesday night to win the title, are the fewest by a championship team since 1968.
“I know that these guys believed that they could really accomplish anything,” O’Connor said. “. . . We’re all going to remember this because it’s a national championship and it’s our first one, but it was certainly a roller-coaster ride.”
The Cavaliers rode the arms of two starting pitchers — sophomore right-hander Connor Jones and left-hander Brandon Waddell — and a closer in Josh Sborz who was nearly unhittable in his 13 innings of scoreless relief at TD Ameritrade Park.
The depth beyond those three was questionable but ultimately came through in the form of freshman Adam Haseley, a left-hander who bats leadoff and usually plays center field, and Nathan Kirby, the 40th overall pick in the major league draft and Virginia’s ace at the start of the season who went down with a lat strain in mid-April.
Kirby pitched for the first time in nine weeks in a start against Florida in Omaha. He was pulled in the third inning in a loss, but he didn’t allow a run in the last two innings of Wednesday night’s trophy-clinching win, recording the save. Haseley made his first start in a month against Vanderbilt in a must-win Game 2 and threw five scoreless innings, setting the stage for Sborz to preserve the shutout in the 3-0 win.
“It worked as good as we could draw it up,” O’Connor said. “That’s because of what these guys did.”
Pitching will take the biggest hit next season with Sborz, Waddell and Kirby all likely to forgo their senior seasons after being drafted in the first five rounds. Jones will be expected to be the ace; he ascended to that role after Kirby got injured. The weekend rotation behind him could be Haseley in Saturday games and right-hander Alec Bettinger on Sundays.
Virginia will return nearly all of its infield, with senior third baseman Kenny Towns the lone departure. Sophomore catcher Matt Thaiss hit .323 out of the three-hole for most of this season, and shortstop Daniel Pinero hit .391 in Omaha. Freshmen Pavin Smith and Ernie Clement occupied first and second base, respectively.
Though half the roster were freshmen, the veterans were the most consistent performers in the team’s run through the College World Series. Towns extended his program record for career postseason RBI with his knack for timely hits. Waddell, who has been a top starter since his freshman season, made up for Virginia’s lack of pitching depth with three starts in 10 days. In Wednesday’s winner-take-all game, he was only supposed to pitch three innings, but he stayed on the mound for seven scoreless. Sborz was the most outstanding player of the College World Series, recording three wins and a save.
Those three sat beside O’Connor for one last news conference Thursday afternoon to reflect on the season. Heartbroken a year ago, they had vowed to themselves that this year would be different.
“We were all just sitting in the locker room and everyone was just passing around the trophy, just having a great time,” Towns said. “I think that would be the moment where we all realized, ‘Wow, we really did it.’ ”