Virginia bounced back to even up the College World Series Finals at one apiece, defeating Vanderbilt 7-2 in Tuesday's Game 2 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska.
The Cavaliers, who were ranked No. 1 in the preseason, proved they had the resilience and heart to match the immense talent on their exceptional roster. It took some patience and fortitude to rally back from multiple one-run deficits, but coach Brian O'Connor's Virginia club eventually broke the game open.
Vanderbilt center fielder John Norwood socked an RBI double in the bottom of the fourth to put the Commodores up 2-1, but he got caught in a rundown while in scoring position. That cost Vandy a shot at invaluable insurance.
Promising start to inning produces just one for Vandy, coming on RBI double by John Norwood. Two Ks and pickoff follow. Commodores 2-1 #CWS— Rich Kaipust (@RKaipustOWH) June 25, 2014
Manufactured runs can be demoralizing for pitchers that yield them, so Cavaliers starter Brandon Waddell deserves some serious credit. Waddell hung tough under the ultimate pressure in this elimination game, settling down after Norwood's shot and thriving as the game progressed.
An unglamorous RBI groundout by John La Prise plated Derek Fisher and wound up being the winning run for Virginia in the top half of the sixth.
Norwood was the center of attention again in that inning, courtesy of a great piece of hitting by Cavaliers counterpart Brandon Downes. A diving Norwood failed to come up with the ball Downes drove from low in the strike zone, and the resulting triple pulled Virginia ahead 4-2.
Perfect Game's Kendall Rogers couldn't fault Norwood's valiant effort:
Though it did hit the palm of his glove, that was one heck of an attempt by John Norwood. Had to go a long way to chase that one down. #CWS— Kendall Rogers (@KendallRogersPG) June 25, 2014
ESPNU noted how much small ball was afoot in this championship showdown:
Feeling Cavalier. #UVa surges ahead w/ 3 runs, goes up 4-2. Other than Brandon Downes RBI triple, other 3 runs have been by groundouts— ESPNU (@ESPNU) June 25, 2014
Once there was a little breathing room, Waddell found his groove and didn't give Vanderbilt any hope of staging a comeback. Aaron Fitt of Baseball America praised Waddell's performance on the mound:
Brandon Waddell has retired seven straight, and hasn't allowed a hit since the 4th. He's cruising, up 6-2 after 7 innings.— Aaron Fitt (@aaronfitt) June 25, 2014
The southpaw Cavalier yielded only one earned run in throwing just the third complete game of Virginia's season, walking three and striking out five.
Virginia Baseball provided more context for how great Waddell was:
Brandon Waddell fires 1st career 9-inning complete game and UVa's first postseason CG since 6/3/11 (Will Roberts vs Navy). #CWS— Virginia Baseball (@UVABaseball) June 25, 2014
In stark contrast, Commodores ace Tyler Beede appeared to wear down late, conceding 10 hits and six earned runs in 6.2 innings. Considering the San Francisco Giants selected Beede with the No. 14 overall pick in the 2014 MLB draft, Vandy coach Tim Corbin couldn't have pinned his national title hopes on a much more reliable arm.
Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News criticized the strategy to keep Beede in for so long amid an enormous pitch count:
Sure the Giants aren't thrilled that Vanderbilt had Beede throw 118 pitches tonight. Season high for Giants staff is 118 by Bumgarner.— Alex Pavlovic (@AlexPavlovic) June 25, 2014
But that's a testament to how formidable Virginia's lineup is. It also highlights the dilemma Corbin faced in what was a tight game until the final few frames.
Who will win the College World Series final?
Although a furious Game 1 rally fell short as the Cavaliers lost 9-8 after yielding all of their runs to Vanderbilt in the third inning, second baseman Branden Cogswell's quote afterwards rang relevant following Tuesday's bounce-back.
"We didn't really want to fall back and pack it in," said Cogswell, per the Associated Press, via ESPN.com. "We hadn't done it all year. This is the championship series, and there is no reason to do it now."
There would have been reason to pack up and head back to Charlottesville had Cogswell and his teammates not found a way to win Game 2. Thankfully for them, NCAA baseball's grand finale will now come down to a decisive third game on Wednesday.
ESPN's Skip Bayless emphasized what's on the line for his alma mater:
Tomorrow night THE NIGHT for Vandy's baseball team to win school's first ever men's national title. Waddell too crafty in G2. NOW, Dores.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) June 25, 2014
Regardless of what happens for Vanderbilt, that Corbin has guided the program to this point is an achievement in and of itself. The Commodores hadn't been to the College World Series until 2011, per the Vanderbilt Commodores' website, suggesting this is the first of many deep runs in Omaha. Coming back to knock off the preseason's top-ranked team would be quite a story.
Virginia was able to take the positives from the opening game and apply those to play their best in Game 2. Now the Cavaliers have much of the momentum in the CWS. Having the target on their backs from the beginning of the season has evidently paid off, because Virginia didn't play or coach like a team with everything to lose.
As unpredictable as baseball tends to be, the magnitude of Wednesday's title clash should throw all bets out. What has to be appreciated is that the true top two teams are battling it out for ultimate glory in Omaha. Just as the season started, though, Virginia will be the favorite to win it all.