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Everything Did

Tuesday June 23, 2015
Omaha, Nebraska
Mile 6,743

The experts said that the only way for Virginia to avoid being swept by Vanderbilt on Tuesday night in the College World Series championship was for everything to go right for Virginia. Everything did. 

Having had to play an extra game to eliminate Florida and move into the championship series, Virginia’s pitching lineup was in shambles. The NCAA handout listed Nathan Kirby, the # 40 overall pick in the MLB draft who had been sidelined much of the season due to injury, as the starting pitcher for the Cavaliers. Instead, Coach Brian O'Connor sent centerfielder and spot starter Adam Haseley to the mound, moved rightfielder Joe McCarthy to centerfield, and put lightly used senior Thomas Woodruff in rightfield. Roll the dice, coach. Everything has to go right tonight. 

Pitching for the first time in a month, Haseley gave the coach all he could possibly ask for – five shutout innings. That left twelve outs to get. O'Connor brought in closer Josh Sborz. The problem is that closers are geared to pitch one or maybe two or for a bulldog like Sborz maybe three innings. Not four. Roll the dice, coach. (My son Hugh was a closer. He threw 80 pitches in four innings in a regional championship game against UNC two years ago. It was asking too much. In fairness to Hugh, he had won a game and saved another just the night before. I think his 36 hour pitch count was about 140. That’s what happens in elimination games.) With the game still in doubt and several relief pitchers pacing around in the bullpen, O'Connor stuck with Sborz even after he gave up a hit and a walk to lead off the ninth. It worked.

Virginia scored all three of its runs in the sixth inning after the first two batters were out. Pavin Smith singled. Kevin Doherty hit a ball up the middle where the Vanderbilt fielders were ready to catch it and throw him out to end the inning, but the ball hit second base and both runners were safe. Joe McCarthy hit the ball right to the first baseman for an easy final out, but the fielder booted it. Bases loaded. Ernie Clement singled in a run. And then Thomas Woodruff came to the plate. As a senior in an elimination game in only his thirteenth start of the season, Woodruff knew well that this could be the last game of his career. He wasn’t one of the seven UVA players selected in the MLB draft. The last time he batted for the Cavaliers was on May 16. Roll the dice, coach. Batting in the nine hole, Woodruff singled in his first at bat. He singled in his second at bat. And in his third at bat with the bases loaded and the season on the line, he singled again to drive in two runs and give Virginia a 3-0 lead they would not relinquish. All three runs were unearned. Everything worked for Virginia. Put the brooms away, Vandy. There will be another game Wednesday night.

Before the game, my daughter Emily, who had arrived for the final games, and I had our picture taken with the iconic dogpile statue in front of the ballpark. We put the #cws on it, and twice during the game our photo was shown on the huge scoreboard with a bunch of other hashtaggers. Very cool. 

Note to fans considering coming to the College World Series: come early. The energy of the first four days is magical. There are fans from eight different schools. Everyone has a chance. Everyone is excited. The lines are long and the place is mobbed and the tickets expensive, but it is well worth the hassle. A week later, everyone left here is exhausted. The ballpark was packed with 24,645, but it felt very different in and outside the ballpark. The carnival was over. The grind was in its last days. This twelve day baseball extravaganza isn’t just grueling for the players and coaches. It wears out the fans as well, and the difference is palpable.

It didn’t help that the first two games of the championship series lasted 3 hours and 48 minutes and 3 hours and 42 minutes. That is way too long. The NCAA and ESPN need to follow the lead of MLB and work on reducing the time of games. My suggestion would be to let the catchers call the games. I get how important every pitch is. I get that Coach O'Connor’s every move was perfect on Tuesday night. But on every pitch in the ninth inning, the Virginia catcher turned and looked into the dugout seemingly endlessly for instructions from the coaches. Then the catcher had to look at the chart on his wrist to know what to call and then he had to call the pitch. This took f-o-r-e-v-e-r on every pitch.

I picked my daughter up at the airport Tuesday and we spent the afternoon exploring Omaha. We went first to the National Park Service’s Lewis and Clark site near the baseball stadium. After an excellent Ken Burns video about Lewis and Clark, we walked across the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge over the Missouri River into Iowa. The roundtrip was only just over a mile, but they claim it is the longest pedestrian bridge linking two states. You can put one foot in Nebraska and the other in Iowa at about the middle of the bridge. Next we went to the magnificent 1931 art deco Union Station. Nebraska knows railroads. The station has been transformed into The Durham Museum with exhibits telling the history of Omaha as America’s gateway to the west. Next we visited the birth sites of Malcolm X and Gerald Ford. Not much to report there as neither stayed in Omaha for very long.

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