OMAHA — There were moments Tuesday night when it appeared as if Virginia’s first appearance in the College World Series finals would end in unceremonious heartbreak. A blown call, a wide strike zone and an unfortunate error — it all seemed to be conspiring against the Cavaliers one night after a disastrous inning left them needing a win to keep their season alive.
Except none of it seemed to bother sophomore Brandon Waddell, and the rest of his teammates soon began to follow his lead.
The Cavaliers came back from an early deficit to beat Vanderbilt, 7-2, in Game 2 of the championship series Tuesday on the back of a soft-tossing lefty who befuddled the Commodores all evening. The two teams will play a deciding Game 3 Wednesday night with the winner taking home its first national title in baseball.
The story on this evening, though, revolved around Waddell, who proved to be a stabilizing force for Virginia (53-15) yet again. He threw the first nine-inning complete game of his career, striking out five and allowing just one earned run on five hits while rarely breaking 90 mph on the radar gun over the course of a career-high 114 pitches.
Waddell, who had a six-inning complete game earlier this year in a rain-shortened game, also retired 13 of the final 15 Vanderbilt batters he faced.
“I didn’t know how long I’d be in the game,” Waddell said. “I just kept going until they told me to stop.”
It all seemed so similar to his performance in Game 2 of Virginia’s super regional win over Maryland to advance to Omaha, when he scattered seven hits and gave up just one run over seven innings with the Cavaliers’ season in the balance.
This time, though, he did it on college baseball’s biggest stage after Virginia looked to be teetering toward elimination early on in front of a crowd of 24,308 that included school President Teresa Sullivan.
Vanderbilt (50-21) took a quick 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning with the aid of a missed call by second base umpire Scott Erby. Commodores center fielder John Norwood was ruled safe stealing second even though he slid into the foot of Virginia shortstop Daniel Pinero instead of the base, and he scored two batters later when designated hitter Chris Harvey sent a scorching line drive off Waddell’s shoulder.
The Cavaliers came right back in the top of the third, tying the game at 1 on a squeeze bunt from junior Branden Cogswell that refused to roll foul and scored center fielder Brandon Downes.
Misfortune struck Virginia again in the fourth. Third baseman Kenny Towns made a throwing error to begin the inning, and Norwood smoked an RBI double to left-center field to give Vanderbilt the lead back.
But where Game 1 starter Nathan Kirby unraveled facing such circumstances 24 hours earlier, Waddell found his groove. He struck out the final two batters of the inning, mixing in a well-executed pickoff play at second base, to escape the jam before cruising through the rest of the game.
“You can’t pull in the circumstances and the situation of the game,” Waddell said. “I feel like if you do that you get caught up in moments, and all of a sudden your head starts spinning and they score a bunch of runs. My approach is to break it down, trying to make it simple, and stick to the game that we’ve executed all year.”
In the sixth inning, slugger Mike Papi led off with a single, sophomore Joe McCarthy added a hit-and-run single and left fielder Derek Fisher and designated hitter John La Prise followed with RBI groundouts to give Virginia a 3-2 lead. Downes provided more cushion to cap off the inning, connecting on an RBI triple just out of the reach of Norwood’s diving attempt.
The Cavaliers then pushed two runs across on a two-run single by Towns in the seventh inning to chase Vanderbilt starter Tyler Beede — who was selected by the San Francisco Giants with the No. 14 pick in this year’s major league draft — from the game.
One more insurance run in the ninth set the stage for Waddell’s coronation in the bottom half of the inning. His array of off-speed pitches is unlikely to wow professional scouts at first glance, but on Tuesday it was exactly what Virginia needed.
“Facing elimination, facing the end of the season, and you have somebody like Waddell step up and pitch like that, and our offensive ballclub would just not be denied,” said Coach Brian O’Connor, who likely will turn to McLean native Josh Sborz to start Game 3. “Now it all comes down to tomorrow night.”