Since the College World Series moved to Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park in 2011, runs have been comparatively scarce. Before Monday night, this year's CWS had been the lowest scoring ever, but the first game of the best-of-three final set a park record. In a battle between two teams making their first CWS final appearances, Vanderbilt erupted for nine third-inning runs against Virginia, overcoming an early deficit and holding on to win, 9-8.
The combination of TD Ameritrade's generous dimensions — 335 feet down the foul lines, 375 in the power alleys and 408 to dead center, with ample foul territory — the ballpark's geography and less lively aluminum bats have reduced scoring considerably since the series moved from Rosenblatt Stadium. This year's first 13 games featured an average of 5.4 runs — per game, not per team. If a single squad managed to scratch out five runs in a game, fuggedaboutit; those teams were 25-0.
But even before Vandy's third-inning outburst, runs weren't particularly hard to come by Monday night. Virginia put a pair up in the bottom of the first inning against righty starter Walker Buehler, a sophomore who was a 2012 14th-round pick by the Pirates. Branden Cogswell hit a leadoff single, took third on a two-out double by Joe McCarthy (not the disgraced senator). Both runners came home via a single to right-center by Derek Fisher — not the new Knicks coach but a supplemental first-round pick by the Astros earlier this month.
Staked to that two-run lead, Virginia southpaw Nathan Kirby, who won ACC co-pitcher of the year honors as a sophomore, appeared poised to dominate. He retired the first seven hitters, four via strikeout, but fell apart completely after that. Kirby threw six straight balls to walk Jason Delay and fall behind Tyler Campbell, who doubled to the base of the left field wall to send Delay to third. Campbell had been the hero against Texas on Saturday night. After collecting just two hits during the regular season, he filled in at third base for Xavier Turner, who was suspended due to an unspecified violation of NCAA rules, and connected for a 10th-inning walkoff infield single.
As Kirby's mechanics fell apart, his velocity dropped from 94 mph in the first inning to 90 in the third, and his pitches continued to miss the zone by more than a little. He walked Dansby Swanson to load the bases, then surrendered his first run when shortstop Daniel Pinero couldn't get to Bryan Reynolds' grounder deep in the hole in time to beat Swanson to second base for the force — a play made possible thanks to Swanson's generous secondary lead. That broke Virginia's 24-inning streak without an earned run, but there wold be more.
Kirby walked three straight hitters to force in three runs, at which point the New York Times' Tyler Kepner, a Vanderbilt alum, tweeted:
Why is UVa leaving this pitcher in? I'll take it as a Vandy guy, but you have crying children in the stands.... — Tyler Kepner (@TylerKepner) June 24, 2014
Kirby threw first-pitch balls to seven straight hitters. As if his sudden loss of the strike zone wasn't bad enough, his defense let him down. First baseman Mike Papi (a supplemental first-round pick by the Indians) bobbled Rhett Wiseman's hard grounder — a potential double play ball — and all hands were safe for the fifth run of the frame. That chased Kirby in favor of right-hander Whit Mayberry, who served up a sacrifice fly, then plunked Delay to reload the bases. As if on cue, Campbell cleared them with a double down the left field line. Finally, Swanson grounded out, ending the half-inning after 31 minutes, 13 hitters and nine runs. Kirby was charged with eight of those (five earned) in 2 1/3 innings, via two hits, five walks and four strikeouts.
Trailing 9-2 but with plenty of baseball left, Virginia coach Brian O'Connor gave his team a quick pep talk in the dugout. It worked, in that his team refused to roll over, taking good at-bats and rallying for three two-out runs in the third via a hit-by-pitch and four straight singles, the last of them a two-run job by Brandon Downes.
Mayberry kept Vanderbilt at bay by retiring six of seven hitters in the fourth and fifth innings, while Virginia continued to claw back. With lefty Jared Miller coming on in relief of Buehler, who had yielded eight hits and five runs in his three frames, to neutralize a five-lefty lineup, it scratched out a pair of two-out runs in the fifth. Downes smashed a triple to deep centerfield, and scored via Nate Irving's double. Cogswell worked a walk and then Pinero drove the ball back up the middle for an RBI single. Papi looked as though he might erase the deficit completely when he drove a ball 380-something feet, but it hung up long enough for centerfielder John Norwood to haul it in on the warning track.
Vanderbilt threatened against a flagging Mayberry in the sixth when Swanson slapped a one-out single, stole second and advanced to third on a groundout. That ended Mayberry's night after 3 1/3 gritty innings and 43 pitches. O'Connor called on righty Austin Young, who with his unorthodox cross-fire delivery struck out Vince Conde swinging to end the threat. Young worked into and out of trouble in the next two frames, escaping in the seventh via back-to-back strikeouts after putting two men on, and via an inning-ending double play in the eighth after issuing a one-out walk to Swanson.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt freshman southpaw John Kilichowski stifled Virginia by retiring the side in order in the sixth and seventh, but he needed some defensive gems to escape the eighth unscathed. After back-to-back singles by Cogswell and Pinero, Papi bunted toward the third base side — that's apparently what you do in college, down two runs with two on, nobody out and the number three hitter at the plate — and Delay's peg to first was a one-hopper, requiring Zander Wiel to make a great scoop for the out. McCarthy followed with a hot smash through the box that deflected off Kilichowski's left foot. It took a great backhand play by the shortstop Conde and then a long stretch from Wiel on the throw just to record the out at first base as the run scored to cut the lead to 9-8. With the tying run at third, Kilichowski had to duck to avoid another comebacker, this one off the bat of Fisher, followed by another great play by Conde, who ranged across second base to retrieve the ball and make the play.
The stellar relief work of Mayberry and Young, who combined for 6 1/3 innings of fourth-hit, one-run ball while striking out six, gave Virginia one last shot in the ninth. Alas, Vandy closer Adam Ravanelle, a fourth-round pick by the Tigers, needed just eight pitches to retire the side, netting two popups and a groundout to seal the win.
With the victory, Vanderbilt is now in the driver's seat. Since 2003, nine of the 11 teams that have won the opener have gone on to win it all, seven doing so by winning the second game as well. Vanderbilt has never won the College World Series before, but Southeast Conference teams have been in the final for seven straight seasons, with Mississippi State representing last year but falling to UCLA. South Carolina was the last SEC school to win, doing so in 2010 and 2011 before falling to Arizona in 2012. Virginia is representing the Atlantic Coast Conference, which last won the title in 1955, when Wake Forest defeated Western Michigan.
The series continues Tuesday with Game 2 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.