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Unlikely source powers Vanderbilt to top of college baseball world

John Norwood's eighth-inning home run was the margin of victory for Vanderbilt against Virginia in Game 3. Photo: Nati Harnik/AP

John Norwood's eighth-inning home run was the margin of victory for Vanderbilt against Virginia in Game 3.

There were 1,215 picks made at this year’s MLB First-Year Player Draft -- 1,215 players of all shapes, sizes and colors, from high schools and colleges alike. John Norwood was not one of those 1,215 names called over draft weekend, which came as a surprise to basically no one. After all, the junior wasn’t a full-time player at Vanderbilt, and though he was third on the team in batting average at .288, his overall line was nothing spectacular. Norwood was a fast, defense-first outfielder, not someone who had caught scouts' attention or inspired MLB dreams.

That all may have changed on Wednesday night. Behind Norwood’s dramatic eighth-inning solo home run, the Commodores defeated the Virginia Cavaliers, 3-2, in the third and deciding game of the College World Series finals in Omaha. The win gives Vanderbilt its first NCAA title in baseball and first men’s title in any sport, as the player passed over again and again by every Major League team came up with the biggest hit of his life on the biggest collegiate stage possible.

“I’m very excited for the kids, the university, we played an outstanding opponent,” said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin after the game. “We’re fortunate in a lot of different ways. The kids, they’re tough, they hung in there. I’m so proud of how they’ve matured.”

Fittingly, Norwood’s homer -- just his third of the season -- came off someone whose name had been called very early during the draft: Nick Howard, Virginia’s closer, who had been taken 19th overall by the Cincinnati Reds. Howard has been virtually untouchable all year, throwing 35 2/3 innings in the regular season with 58 strikeouts and only seven earned runs allowed as the Cavaliers’ top man out of the bullpen, earning All-ACC honors in the process. He was also coming into the game with a fresh arm, not having thrown in Games 1 or 2. Brought into a tie game, Howard dispatched his first batter of the series, getting Bryan Reynolds to fly out to right field. That brought up Norwood, who already had two hits in the game and had scored Vanderbilt’s second run.

Norwood took ball one, and Howard decided to go for a fastball down and in. But his 97 mph offering drifted up instead, and Norwood whipped his bat around, shooting a laser toward the outfield. Virginia’s Derek Fisher could only watch as the ball soared over his head and over the 335 marker on TD Ameritrade Park’s left field fence before coming down in the bullpen. It was Vanderbilt’s first home run of the College World Series, and as Norwood rounded the bases, pumping his fists and screaming, his team poured out of the dugout to meet him at home plate.

The homer saved Vanderbilt after Virginia had rallied to tie the game in the sixth after finally getting to Commodores starter Carson Fulmer. Starting on three days rest, Fulmer baffled the Cavaliers over the first five innings, striking out five hitters against just an infield single and a walk, with both of those coming in the second. He had been given an early lead to work with, too, thanks to a double steal by Vanderbilt that led to a Virginia throwing error and an early run. Vanderbilt doubled that advantage in the top of the sixth following an infield single by Norwood, who moved to second on a throwing error, advanced to third on a groundout and scored on another infield single that Virginia shortstop Daniel Pinero couldn’t handle.

But in the bottom of the inning, the Cavaliers figured Fulmer out. A leadoff single by Robbie Coman led to Virginia's first run on a single by Pinero. After a walk to Mike Papi, Fulmer was relieved by Hayden Stone, who loaded the bases on a hit by pitch. Stone whiffed Fisher for the inning’s second out, then got Kenny Towns to line a ball to shortstop. But Vince Conde couldn’t come up with the ball cleanly, and Pinero crossed home plate with the tying run.

Norwood’s clutch shot broke the tie, but it didn’t finish off the Cavaliers completely. With Stone still on the mound in the bottom of the eighth, Papi led off the frame with a single, followed by a walk to Joe McCarthy. On came closer and fourth-round MLB pick Adam Ravenelle to try to finish the game for the Commodores. His first hitter, Fisher, bunted, moving Papi and McCarthy into scoring position. Another hit by pitch, this one on Towns, loaded the bases with just one out. But Ravenelle got John La Prise to tap a ball back to the mound before going home for the force out, then induced an inning-ending groundout to shortstop from Brandon Downes to get out of the inning unscathed.

That proved to be the last gasp of hope for Virginia, as the Cavaliers went down in order in the bottom of the ninth on a lineout and two strikeouts. Pinero was the final hitter for Virginia, swinging through Ravenelle’s 20th pitch of the night and bringing the Commodores screaming out of their dugout once more, this time to pile on top of each other on the mound.

The win for Vanderbilt comes in its first  appearance at the College World Series finals over a Virginia team that was also making its finals debut. It’s the first College World Series win for an SEC team since South Carolina won the second of back-to-back titles in 2011 and is the fourth time in the last decade that an SEC squad has won it all. The SEC now has 10 College World Series titles, second only to the Pac-12, which has 17.

The tournament’s most outstanding player award went to Vanderbilt second baseman Dansby Swanson, who scored the first run of the game on the double steal and went 2-for-5 on the night. But it was Norwood who shone brightest on Wednesday for the Commodores. He may not have heard his name called during the draft, but he certainly answered the call for his school.

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