OMAHA—The two most talented teams in college baseball were the last two standing in Omaha. That does not usually happen.
Vanderbilt and Virginia gave us a compelling series worthy of their greatness. It wasn't always clean baseball—walks and errors factored prominently in the outcome of the first and third games—but it was intense theater.
The preseason No. 1 Cavaliers were the best team in the nation from the start of the season to the finish, a veteran club loaded with marquee players in the lineup and on the mound. In that respect, they were similar to the 2013 Vanderbilt team that went a record 26-3 in the Southeastern Conference but lost a home super regional to Louisville.
“We were the best team in the country last year, hands down," Vandy sophomore outfielder Rhett Wiseman said after the Commodores beat Texas to clinch a trip to the CWS Finals. “It just goes to show you, the best team doesn't always win it. It's not about that. It's about the team that plays the best. Look at us a month ago—if you said we'd be playing in the national championship, everyone would be rolling their eyes at the baseball we were playing. But we just came together at the right time. Look at the lineup tonight, we had eight guys in the starting lineup who didn't start last year. Vinny Conde was the only one. It just shows you the way we've come together in the past month."
The Cavaliers outplayed the 'Dores for much of the best-of-three Finals, but Vanderbilt found a way to win the national championship anyway. In Game One, UVa. first-team All-America ace Nathan Kirby shockingly and abruptly lost the ability to throw strikes in the third inning, leading to a nine-run frame for Vanderbilt. The Commodores worked plenty of deep counts in Omaha and showed admirable plate discipline, but in that inning, Kirby was nowhere near the strike zone; it had little to do with Vandy's patience. And Vanderbilt got a pair of big doubles from upstart Tyler Campbell in the frame to capitalize on Kirby's wildness.
Virginia still almost found a way to win that game, cutting the deficit to 9-8 in the eighth inning and putting the tying run on third base, but the Cavaliers could not get the big hit to push the runner home. The story was the same in Wednesday's decisive third game; Virginia came from behind for the second straight day to tie the score in the sixth inning, but it stranded the bases loaded in that frame. Vandy took the lead on Johnny Norwood's eighth-inning home run, and again UVa. fought back to load the bases with one out in the bottom of the inning. And again, the Cavaliers failed to push across the tying run.
“Throughout the course of the game, we did a good job getting guys on base," Virginia outfielder Joe McCarthy said. “But it comes down to we never got that big hit to bust it open. Guys were hitting the ball hard, but just couldn't get that big one."
It had nothing to do with a lack of toughness or with playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which hasn't won a national championship since 1955, instead of the SEC, which has seen three members now win four titles in the last six years. The Cavaliers lived up to their preseason No. 1 billing all season long, and even in the last game they repeatedly responded to adversity. But they were playing against another team with elite talent, especially on the mound, and Vandy got huge pitches in tight spots from power-armed relievers Hayden Stone and Adam Ravenelle. Both teams had the hearts of champions, and they proved it. But only one of them could win.
“That was an incredible baseball game, an outstanding final series between the two of us," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said after Game Three. “Unfortunately, in sports somebody's going to come out on the wrong end, and we came out on the wrong end tonight. It didn't have anything to do with not handling pressure. It didn't have anything to do with a want-to, a competitiveness; each and every guy that was out there on that mound or on the field or in that batter's box wanted to do the job for their team, but unfortunately in competition somebody comes out on the wrong end, and tonight it was us.
“Just really the credit goes to Vanderbilt. They made some outstanding pitches in the clutch, they really did."
Both of these programs will be back in Omaha again and again in the years to come, because their coaches have built them into college baseball superpowers. Virginia will lose several blue-chip hitters (Mike Papi, Derek Fisher, Branden Cogswell and Brandon Downes) plus Omaha bullpen stalwarts Artie Lewicki and first-rounder Nick Howard, but will return its entire weekend rotation and key everyday players at catcher, shortstop, third base, DH and right field. They should have enough talent to make another run at the CWS, where it would hardly be stunning to see them run into Vanderbilt again. The Commodores have so much coming back that they look like a very early favorite to repeat as national champions.
But then, the best team usually doesn't win it all. It's the team that plays the best for those two weeks in Omaha.
“We had a special season, and it's unfortunate how it ended, but we played a great ballgame and the competition was good," O'Connor said. “The University of Virginia baseball program will be back here in Omaha at some point, and maybe the next time we can win it all."
• Conference affiliation might have had nothing to do with the outcome, but there is no denying that the SEC has been college baseball's best conference over the last decade. Vanderbilt is the sixth different SEC school to reach the finals over the past seven years, joining Georgia, LSU, Florida, South Carolina (three straight years) and Mississippi State. That is a loud testament to the SEC's famous depth. The conference also has won four national titles in the past six years, and 10 championships in the past 25 years—quite a stretch of prolonged excellence. In that same 25-year period, the Pacific-12/Pac-10 has won five titles, the second-most of any league.
• The NCAA touted the overall College World Series attendance of 347,740 as a new record, but its post-Finals notes neglected to mention that the per-game attendance declined dramatically from a year ago, dropping from 24,392 to 21,733.
The CWS averaged 22,977 fans per game in the first year at TD Ameritrade park in 2011, and 21,782 per game in 2012. So the 2014 attendance is actually in line with the norm. But the attendance for the final game was still disappointing. Only 18,344 fans showed up to watch a winner-takes-the-title showdown, down from 27,127 in the second (and last) game of last year's Finals.
But CWS officials aren't concerned about the drop. CWS Inc. president Jack Diesing Jr. told the Associated Press on Wednesday that the 2013 attendance was an “anomaly" because LSU and Mississippi State brought strong fan followings to Omaha.
“Actually, we think it's quite an accomplishment to average 22,000 people watching college baseball where there is no home run," Diesing told the AP.
• There were just three home runs in the CWS for the second straight year, but one of them—Norwood's shot in the eighth inning of the last game—proved to be the title-winner. It’s not just power that’s down—the eight CWS teams hit an aggregate .219, down from .237 a year ago, .234 in 2012 and .239 in 2011. The CWS also tied the metal-bat record for most sacrifice bunts in a Series (37), set in 2011. And just 60 percent of the 101 runs scored were driven in by a hit. Sacrifices, groundout/fielder's choices, errors, walks and wild pitches/passed balls/caught stealings accounted for the other 40 percent.
• If Virginia had won the final game against Vanderbilt, Lewicki would likely have won the CWS Most Outstanding Player award. Lewicki, an eighth-round pick of the Detroit Tigers, was brilliant in four relief appearances in Omaha, allowing just one unearned run over 13 innings of work while striking out 10. He yielded just five hits and three walks, and he gave Virginia a chance in the final game by working six sterling innings of relief on three days' rest.
“You go to somebody that started his whole career, and you go to him the day before the first game in Omaha, and you have an honest, man-to-man conversation with somebody that this is what we need to do to win in Omaha: We need to put you in the bullpen," O'Connor said. “And the response being, 'Coach, whatever I need to do to help the team win.' He pitches in four ballgames here and was just ligts-out in all four . . . We're forever grateful to people like him that wear our uniform. It will carry on as we continue to move forward with this program."
• Vanderbilt second baseman Dansby Swanson, who hit .323 in seven CWS games and played sterling defense, captured the MOP award, leading the all-tournament team, which included four Commodores and five Cavaliers. The team:
|C: Nate Irving, Virginia|
|1B: Kevin Cron, TCU|
|2B: Branden Cogswell, Virginia|
|3B: Tyler Campbell, Vanderbilt|
|SS: C.J Hinojosa, Texas|
|OF: Brandon Downes, Virginia|
|OF: John Norwood, Vanderbilt|
|OF: Rhett Wiseman, Vanderbilt|
|DH: Dansby Swanson, Vanderbilt|
|P: Artie Lewicki, Virginia|
|P: Brandon Waddell, Virginia|