Virginia won its first College World Series championship in program history on Wednesday night, knocking off Vanderbilt 4–2 in the deciding Game 3. In doing so, the Cavaliers become one of the most unlikely teams to ever win the title. They were a No. 3 seed in their region, becoming just the third No. 3 seed to hoist the trophy. They had the fewest wins of any of the eight teams that advanced to Omaha—their 44 victories were the fewest of a national champion since USC in 1968—and were the sixth team in the last 10 years to reach the College World Series without a winning record in conference after going 15–15 in the ACC.
As the Cavaliers celebrate a surprising championship, and the first for the ACC since Wake Forest won it in 1955, here are three key thoughts from the final game of the college baseball season.
Fitting heroes led the Cavaliers in Game 3
The Cavaliers relied on freshmen more than your typical College World Series champion, starting four in their regular lineup. One senior, however, third baseman Kenny Towns, hit cleanup for the balance of the season and led the team in RBIs. It came as little surprise then that Towns and freshman Pavin Smith were the offensive heroes in the deciding game.
Trailing 2–0 in the top of the fourth, Towns drew a walk against Vanderbilt starter Walker Buehler, the 24th pick of the 2015 amateur draft to the Dodgers. Smith then strode to the plate and drilled a game-tying homer into the stands in right centerfield, knocking Buehler out of the game. In the bottom half of the inning, with a runner on third and two outs, Towns made a spectacular play, laying out to his right and then popping up and making a strong throw all the way across the diamond to get Tyler Campbell and keep the game tied.
Smith’s next trip to the plate came in the top of the fifth inning with runners on first and second and two outs. He drove a 2–0 fastball from Ben Bowden into leftfield for what proved to be the game-winning RBI. Towns added an RBI single of his own in the seventh for good measure, but his greatest contribution came on what was likely the defensive play of the entire tournament. If that ball off the bat of Campbell got by him and down into the leftfield corner, the Commodores would have taken the lead, and the top of the order would have been coming up with a runner in scoring position.
One more freshman starter, centerfielder Adam Haseley, went 2-for-3 with a pair of walks and two runs. A couple of freshmen and a standout senior carried the Cavaliers when they needed it most, just as had been the case for most of the season.
A pair of starting pitchers came up huge for the Cavaliers
Early on, it looked like Vanderbilt would have a chance to run away and hide. After Buehler wriggled off the hook and escaped a bases-loaded jam in the first, the Commodores got two runs off Virginia starter Brandon Waddell, a junior who starred in the 2014 NCAA tournament. From that point forward, Waddell was dominant. The Commodores got two more runners into scoring position against him, but both times he shut the door without allowing another run. He faced No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson three times. The shortstop went 0-for-3 with a strikeout. Waddell retired the final 11 batters he faced and finished the night allowing just those two runs on four hits and two walks in seven innings.
From there, head coach Brian O’Connor handed the ball to his staff ace, Nathan Kirby. The junior lefty, who was selected by the Brewers with the 40th overall pick in this year’s draft, pitched the final two innings of the game, striking out five and allowing a pair of base runners. Let this be a lesson to major-league managers who are too rigid to use their best pitchers in high-leverage situations, regardless of the inning. Doing so just helped Virginia win the College World Series.
The entire NCAA tournament served as a microcosm for Virginia’s season
The Cavaliers nearly missed out on the NCAA tourney altogether after going just 1–3 in the ACC tournament. They were one of the last at-large teams in the field, forced to go out west in UC Santa Barbara’s region. They went undefeated in the group, without having to face the top-seeded Gauchos. The Wahoos then swept Maryland, a fellow No. 3 seed which took out top-seeded UCLA, in the Super Regionals, advancing to the College World Series without having to face a No. 1 seed.
Counted out in a deciding game against Florida, the Cavaliers pulled off the upset to advance to the College World Series finals, and after losing Game 1, they won two straight to claim the program’s first College World Series championship. This team was essentially down to its last out for a month straight, and now it wears the crown.