OMAHA — As Virginia third baseman Kenny Towns spoke about the future a few feet away from the losing locker room Wednesday night, he paused for one moment. Left fielder Derek Fisher had just walked by, unable to keep his emotions in check during a tear-filled television interview in the minutes following the Cavaliers’ heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Vanderbilt in the deciding Game 3 of the College World Series finals.
And then it hit Towns, too. He’s the only one of Virginia’s seven scholarship juniors who did not get selected in this year’s Major League Baseball draft. Chances are he had just finished his last game with many of the teammates he came to school with.
“You really grow attached, and just to have it end like this, it’s tough, especially with the guys leaving,” said Towns, a native of Burke. “It kind of hits you a little harder knowing you’re probably never going to play with them again. Maybe ever again. You just try to soak it all in now and let them know how much you care about them.”
This is perhaps the most jarring reality the Virginia baseball team will confront in the coming days as it ponders how a national title slipped from its grasp.
On Thursday evening, upon returning to Charlottesville, the Cavaliers were greeted with a pep rally at Davenport Field to celebrate the best Virginia baseball team to date. Soon, though, the talented junior class that made up the core of this group will be scattered in towns across the country playing minor league baseball.
Closer Nick Howard, first baseman Mike Papi and Fisher — all first-round or supplemental first-round picks in the MLB draft — will almost assuredly be gone. Second baseman Branden Cogswell and center fielder Brandon Downes have likely played their final game at Virginia as well. Perhaps catcher Nate Irving will be back after falling to the 34th round of the draft, but that seemed a faint possibility as he went around the locker room Wednesday night hugging every player on the team.
Senior pitchers Artie Lewicki, Whit Mayberry and Austin Young — who combined to allow one earned run over 212 / 3 innings of relief during the College World Series — have run out of eligibility.
Still, Towns managed to find hope in a program that has now made it to the College World Series three times in the past six years.
“We know what we got to do, especially being here this year,” he said. “We know what it takes to be a championship team. We just fell a little bit short. I think we have the talent and the coaching staff to come back here next year and just give it another run.”
For the time being, though, the Cavaliers will likely lament how a few crucial mistakes cost them in a championship series they otherwise controlled.
In Game 1, all-American ace Nathan Kirby came unhinged during a disastrous third inning in which Vanderbilt scored nine runs on just three hits. In Game 3, Commodores center fielder John Norwood blasted the fourth home run of his career into TD Ameritrade Park’s left field bullpen to break a tie game in the top of the eighth inning, unloading on a 97-mph fastball from Howard, Virginia’s shutdown closer all season.
The Cavaliers mounted a comeback in the bottom half of the inning only to leave the bases loaded, an issue all postseason that finally came back to haunt them. Virginia stranded 109 runners in its 12 NCAA tournament games.
“Obviously, this isn’t the result we wanted to have, but it’s something you want to learn from and really let it motivate you to make yourself better and maybe come back next year and make sure something like this doesn’t happen,” said sophomore right fielder Joe McCarthy, one of the key pieces who will be back.
Still, Virginia will likely be back near the top of the polls when next spring rolls around. This is the sort of juggernaut Coach Brian O’Connor has built during 11 years in Charlottesville. Freshmen such as outfielder Tyler Allen and pitcher Connor Jones, and a talented recruiting class, will replenish the ranks.
The Cavaliers also return a starting rotation full of sophomores — Kirby, Game 2 winner Brandon Waddell and McLean native Josh Sborz — that “all became men this year,” pitching coach Karl Kuhn said. The trio is expected to rank among the nation’s best again next year.
“I tell our pitchers all the time: ‘One pitch doesn’t define you. One inning doesn’t define you. One game doesn’t define you. One series doesn’t define you,’ and surely this outcome doesn’t define us,” Kuhn added. “It’s a very, very special group that gets to come to Omaha.”