OMAHA — The first hug came from senior pitcher Austin Young. He went from stall to stall in Virginia’s locker room, capping off each one with a whispered word of encouragement and a pat on the back. Then catcher Nate Irving got up, unable to hold in the tears any longer as he wrapped his arms around teammate after teammate.
Third baseman Kenny Towns joined in next, and soon every single one of the Cavaliers walked around the room and embraced one another. There was not a dry eye in the place. And junior Nick Howard couldn’t bear to watch it.
This was when a heartbreaking night for the Virginia baseball team truly sunk in.
Moments earlier, Vanderbilt had emerged with a 3-2 victory over the Cavaliers in the deciding game of the College World Series finals. While the Commodores celebrated their first national championship in baseball, Virginia grieved.
The ending had been cruel.
The winning run came when Vanderbilt’s John Norwood hit a solo home run off Howard with one out in the top of the eighth inning to break open a tie game. The blast was stunning, just the third in 16 games of a College World Series defined by a lack of offense.
The ball landed in TD Ameritrade Park’s left field bullpen and came after Virginia’s shutdown closer fired a 97 mph fastball on a 1-0 count. It was just the third home run given up this year by Howard, an Olney native selected by the Cincinnati Reds with the No. 19 overall pick in this month’s Major League Baseball draft.
“Fastball up,” he said moments before escaping to a back room. “He hit it.”
At some point, perhaps even as early as Thursday when throngs of fans greet them at Davenport Field in Charlottesville, the Virginia baseball team will be able to appreciate just how much it accomplished this season. With preseason expectations higher than ever before, the Cavaliers finished with the second-most wins in program history and came closer to a national championship than any of their predecessors.
But only a few minutes removed from having the title within their grasps, the emotions were raw.
“There’s really nothing you say. This is the last time you’re gonna play with some of these guys,” third baseman Kenny Towns said. Howard “has been our guy the whole year and it’s rough that one pitch is going to affect maybe what he thought of this year as a whole. But there’s no one else we’d rather have on the mound than him.”
The evening had begun inauspiciously. As Virginia starter Josh Sborz (McLean) struggled with his control, Vanderbilt (51-21) took a quick 1-0 lead when catcher Robbie Coman airmailed a throw to second base on a double steal and leadoff hitter Dansby Swanson — who was later named the College World Series most outstanding player — came across home plate.
By the time the second inning began, Coach Brian O’Connor had already turned to senior Artie Lewicki, unwilling to risk another shaky frame from Sborz, who pitched on three days’ rest. Lewicki’s string of 112 / 3 innings of scoreless relief in four appearances during this College World Series ended on another throwing error by Towns that made the score 2-0 in the top of the sixth inning.
But Lewicki never did allow an earned run during the 231 / 3 innings he pitched during this year’s NCAA tournament.
In the bottom of the sixth, Virginia mounted its comeback. Coman led off with a single and shortstop Daniel Pinero drove him in with an RBI single. Towns then got some redemption when his line drive with the bases loaded slipped out of the grasp of Vanderbilt shortstop Vince Conde — an unearned run that tied the score at 2.
Howard then took the mound for the eighth inning.
“If I had to do it all over again, I know that both Coach O’Connor and I would make the exact same decision,” pitching coach Karl Kuhn said. “I think any time you go down with your best — you never feel good going down — but you can still look at yourself in the mirror knowing you went down with no bullets left in the gun.”
The Cavaliers did not go out with a whimper. In the bottom of the eighth, they loaded the bases with one out only to watch designated hitter John La Prise and center fielder Brandon Downes groundout in consecutive at-bats facing Vanderbilt closer Adam Ravenelle.
A few minutes later, the Commodores streamed onto the field for a postgame dogpile.
As Vanderbilt basked in a championship victory, O’Connor began to tidy up his dugout. He hugged his coaches and a few Virginia administrators. Athletic Director Craig Littlepage shook his hand. When that was done, the Omaha native who grew up in nearby Council Bluffs, Iowa, just sat down on the bench.
Fireworks went off in the background and black-and-gold confetti floated toward the ground. O’Connor barely noticed, his mouth agape and his thoughts consumed with just how close these Cavaliers had been.
“There isn’t anything a coach can say to take the pain away,” O’Connor said. “When you’re a competitor and you work so hard for something for a long period of time and then you have it right there in front of you and it doesn’t happen, it hurts and it’s painful. And it’s gonna hurt for a while. …
“The game was right there. I saw it in my mind.”