Virginia catcher Nate Irving stood outside the losing locker room Monday night more resolute than ever.
Irving had been almost helpless during the third-inning meltdown that ultimately cost the Cavaliers in their 9-8 loss to Vanderbilt in Game 1 of the College World Series. He thought starter Nathan Kirby “looked great” through two frames, battling back in some hitter-friendly counts to strike out four of the first seven Commodores he faced.
The shock of Kirby’s sudden collapse and the nine-run meltdown that followed had worn off, replaced by the knowledge that a shot at redemption was less than 24 hours away.
“Our offense is as confident as ever,” Irving said emphatically. “Stuff like this happens. Baseball is weird. The ball is not always going to bounce your way. Although we gave up that nine in the third, we battled back and had a pretty damn good chance to take the lead. . . . That’s why we play a three-game series to decide who takes it all.”
The Cavaliers will be on the brink of elimination when they take the field for Tuesday night’s Game 2 of the best-of-three College World Series finals. Virginia, though, has yet to lose on back-to-back days this season,and the near comeback it authored Monday night provided hope in the immediate aftermath of Game 1.
The Cavaliers scored the final six runs of the night, out-hit the Commodores, 15-6, and held them in check outside of that lone disastrous inning.
“This is why it’s a national championship series rather than a national championship game,” Coach Brian O’Connor said. “If we come and play with the heart like we did tonight, we’ll have a chance [Tuesday] night.”
In the immediate aftermath of Game 1, though, there was plenty of second-guessing to go around from frustrated fans and reporters alike.
The most pressing issue revolved around whether O’Connor could have removed Kirby earlier. It’s easy to forget now, though, that Kirby struck out the first batter he faced in the third inning and appeared to be cruising again.
“We did the best job that we could to try to get Mayberry ready as quick as we could, but we kind of got jumped, and that’s hard,” O’Connor said. “Nathan was the freshest guy on our pitching staff. He hadn’t pitched in eight days, and last Sunday was his last start. So [pitching coach Karl Kuhn] and I, we were going to let him grind through it. We were going to continue to let him pitch through it, and unfortunately, it just didn’t work.”
There were other questions as well, many of which revolved around first baseman Mike Papi. Could Kirby’s night have been salvaged had Papi not committed a costly third inning error? What if his fifth-inning flyout to the warning track had been hit in any ballpark? And why did O’Connor then have Papi, his best hitter, bunt in the eighth inning after Virginia led off the inning with two singles?
O’Connor’s answer to the latter question revealed some insight into his thinking over the entire evening.
“Certainly, Mike Papi has 11 home runs and driven in a lot of runs, but we’ve played this style of offense all year long, where’s it’s opportunistic and the game tells us what to do,” O’Connor said. “Joe McCarthy smokes that ball right up the middle, and if it doesn’t hit the [pitcher], all of a sudden it’s a tie ballgame. If you don’t tie it, looks like maybe you should have let him swing away.
“But those are decisions you make in the moment and you’ve got to live with them. We’ve had a philosophy that each player has a role, depending on what the situation is, and they need to do their job. And Mike did his job. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t — that ball just couldn’t sneak through.”
Virginia will now trot out sophomore lefty Brandon Waddell (9-3, 2.57 ERA) to start Game 2. Vanderbilt will likely counter with junior Tyler Beede (8-7, 3.80 ERA), the No. 14 pick in this year’s Major League Baseball draft. The right-hander did not make it out of the fourth inning in his College World Series debut against UC-Irvine, allowing four runs, hitting three batters and issuing three walks.
O’Connor will have his two best relievers — senior Artie Lewicki and closer Nick Howard — available thanks to the work of Mayberry and senior Austin Young on Monday night. The duo held Vanderbilt in check for the final six innings of Game 1, saving the Cavaliers’ bullpen.
And at this point, with their national championship hopes on the line, the Cavaliers can only hope Monday’s near comeback creates some momentum for Tuesday.
“We didn’t come out on top and the only thing you can do is carry it over,” second baseman Branden Cogswell said.