OMAHA — The narrative is one that has become all too familiar for Virginia at this point, but the stakes Sunday night made it even more excruciating.
Inning after inning, ace Nathan Kirby took the mound and promptly confounded the Southeastern Conference’s top hitting team. And frame after frame, the Cavaliers’ lineup failed to deliver the insurance run they so badly needed to start their third College World Series in six years with a victory.
Until Mike Papi stepped to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, when his team’s slim lead had evaporated.
The junior delivered a two-out, walk-off double to the gap in right center that scored pinch runner Thomas Woodruff and sent his teammates streaming from the dugout after Virginia (50-14) had secured a dramatic 2-1 win over Mississippi. It was the first walk-off hit in the College World Series since South Carolina eliminated Virginia in 2011.
The Cavaliers are now in the winner’s bracket of their pool and will face TCU on Tuesday with a chance to move within one win of the championship series. The Horned Frogs defeated Texas Tech, 3-2, during the afternoon session at TD Ameritrade Park.
“I know when I got it, I got it as well as I could have,” Papi said. “But I was just hoping and praying that it was gonna fall somewhere out there in this cavernous park.”
Before those late game heroics, Virginia nearly wasted a brilliant performance by Kirby. The sophomore was almost untouchable, ruthlessly efficient on an evening when Virginia’s lineup stranded 10 men on base and failed time and time again to produce a timely hit.
Just eight days after his shortest outing of the year in a 5-4 loss to Maryland in Game 1 of last week’s super regional, Kirby pitched seven-plus innings, giving up just one run and one hit while not allowing a runner to reach second base until the eighth inning. The Rebels had just three fair balls that reached the outfield.
Virginia’s combined one-hitter — senior Artie Lewicki did not allow a hit in relief of Kirby and was credited with the victory — is the first in College World Series play since 1983.
“We just could not solve [him], could not catch up to the fastball,” Mississippi Coach Mike Bianco said of Kirby.
Early on, though, the Cavaliers continued a trend that has seen them leave 67 men on base in seven postseason games.
Even Virginia’s first run didn’t come without some hiccups. Nate Irving and Branden Cogswell began the fifth inning with consecutive singles, but Daniel Pinero — the team’s most prolific bunter this season — couldn’t get down the sacrifice to advance the runners. Instead, he lined out to second baseman Preston Overbey, who fired a throw to first in time to complete the double play.
But Joe McCarthy delivered a two-out, RBI single that gave the Cavaliers a 1-0 advantage.
Mississippi (46-20), making its first College World Series appearance since 1972, would not be shut out. After consecutive walks by Kirby to start the eighth inning, the Rebels tied it at 1 on a groundout by pinch hitter Holt Perdzock.
Just a few minutes later, however, Papi connected on a full count against Aaron Greenwood. Once the ball landed on the outfield grass, a mosh pit began between second and third base, with Papi as its featured guest.
“Every walk off is awesome. It’s speechless. You don’t know what to say,” he said. “But to have it done in the College World Series makes it that much better.”
● TCU 3, TEXAS TECH 2: The Horned Frogs used a two-run rally in the bottom of the eighth inning to beat their Big 12 rivals and move into the winner’s bracket. TCU (48-16) tied it on a throwing error by Red Raiders second baseman Alec Humphreys and got the winning run two batters later on Bommer White’s RBI single.
The Red Raiders (45-20) had taken a 2-1 lead in the top of the inning on a two-run triple by Tyler Neslony.
Preston Morrison allowed just one earned run over 71 / 3 innings and struck out 10 for TCU.