OMAHA—It was a weird, weird game.
Virginia out-hit Vanderbilt 15-6 Monday night in the opener of the best-of-three CWS Finals—but the Commodores won 9-8.
Vandy put up a nine-spot in the third inning to take a 9-2 lead, then watched Virginia climb all the way back within a run, and put the tying run at third base in the eighth inning.
Neither of the two likely 2015 first-round picks who started the game even reached the fourth inning, as first-team All-American Nathan Kirby abruptly lost the ability to throw strikes in the third, and Vanderbilt righty Walker Buehler surrendered five runs on eight hits over three innings, a week after working 5 1/3 hitless innings in a win against UC Irvine. Kirby was similar dominant in his last outing eight days ago against Mississippi, allowing just one hit over seven strong innings.
It looked like more of the same from Kirby early on Monday, as he retired the first seven hitters of the game in order, striking out four of them. Then the wheels came off, to the great surprise of everyone in the ballpark, including Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, who later confided he thought his team could be in trouble when it fell behind 2-0 in the first and Kirby looked overpowering in the first two innings.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: Tyler Campbell’s one-out double in the third inning ignited Vanderbilt’s historic nine-run outburst—the most runs ever scored in a half-inning at TD Ameritrade Park. After the double put men on second and third, Virginia starter Nathan Kirby could not find the strike zone, walking four of the next five hitters.
The Hero: Campbell doubled twice in the third; he also capped the rally with a three-run double down the left-field line, giving Vanderbilt a 9-2 lead. And the Commodores wound up needing every one of those runs. Campbell is 5-for-12 (.417) since taking over for Xavier Turner in Omaha.
You Might Have Missed: Virginia senior Austin Young turned in an outstanding relief performance to help the Cavs climb back into the game. Young, who has pitched 22 innings over 18 appearances on UVa.’s deep staff, allowed just one hit over 3 1/3 shutout innings Monday, using his hard slider to strike out four.
“We’re fortunate to win that game, for sure,” Corbin said. “No one could have scripted that particular game, and if anyone said they could, they’re lying. I don’t think you could have called a nine-run inning.”
A nine-run inning that featured just three hits—two of them by a guy who entered the game with five hits all season. Tyler Campbell, making his third straight start at third base after taking over for the ineligible Xavier Turner, sparked the rally with a double to the base of the left-field wall after Jason Delay’s one-out walk. The ghastly scene that followed induced cringe after cringe, as the game sped up beyond Kirby’s control.
After Campbell’s double, Kirby walked four of the next five hitters, as he repeatedly missed arm-side and up with his previously outstanding slider and failed to have any better success with his fastball. A Bryan Reynolds chopper to short also contributed to the rally, as Dansby Swanson beat the throw to second base on an infield single that drove in Vandy’s first run. Corbin called that “the biggest play of that entire game.”
But Kirby’s five walks were the big story of the inning.
“I just couldn’t find my release point,” Kirby said. “It hadn’t happened all year but it happened tonight.”
The Cavaliers, of course, were caught off guard by their ace’s sudden struggles, and coach Brian O’Connor said they decided to see if Kirby could “grind through it” while Whit Mayberry got loose in the bullpen. What choice did they have? After his fifth walk, Kirby got Rhett Wiseman to ground to first base, but Mike Papi made an error to keep the bases loaded and make the score 5-2 Vanderbilt. At that point, finally, the Cavs went to Mayberry.
“Those of us who have pitched before, we’ve all been there before,” O’Connor said. “I went out and told Nathan that he needs to walk off this mount with his head held high, and that this outing is not going to define who he is as a person or who he is as a pitcher. There will be many more opportunities down the road for Nathan Kirby, and he’s quite a competitor and a very, very talented young man. Sometimes that just happens, and it kind of came up out of nowhere. We did the best job that we could to try to get Mayberry ready as quick as we could, but we kind of got jumped, and it’s hard.”
After a sacrifice fly in foul ground scored another run, Mayberry hit a batter to load the bases again. And Campbell cleared them with his second double of the inning, down the left-field line. That swing of the bat doubled his season RBI total—from three to six.
“I guess Tyler is a veteran now; he’s played three games,” Corbin said. “But no, he takes advantage of key situations. He got a 2-0 pitch, was ready to hit and put a very good swing on a fastball that was the start of that particular inning. I just thought his play all the way around was aggressive and on point.”
If you changed the channel when the score was 9-2, no one could blame you. So often at TD Ameritrade Park, even a two-run lead feels insurmountable, and Buehler was untouchable in his last appearance in Omaha.
But the Cavaliers responded to the nine-run meltdown with three of their own in the bottom of the frame, capped by Brandon Downes’ two-run single. They added two more in the fifth off Jared Miller to make it 9-7, highlighted by Downes’ two-out triple and Nate Irvine’s RBI double. Mike Papi nearly gave Virginia a 10-9 lead that inning, smashing a drive into the right-center gap, but Johnny Norwood tracked it down on the warning track.
“I thought it was gone off the bat,” Downes said of Papi’s shot. “That’s all I can say. I was jumping up and down, and I thought it was gone.”
Then Vanderbilt found another unlikely hero to give its overworked bullpen a major boost. Freshman lefthander John Kilichowski took over in the sixth inning, making his first appearance since May 17. He set down the next six batters in order, locating his 89-90 fastball and 78-80 breaking ball well. Kilichowski had been hindered by some bicep soreness about a month ago, but he has been healthy during the postseason and simply had not gotten a chance to pitch on Vanderbilt’s loaded staff. But he was ready.
“Corbs alluded to me that I was going to be a factor in the series being that they have so many lefthanders and I’m a guy who is lefthanded,” Kilichowski said. “I go out there every single game with the thought that I’m going to pitch. In the back of your mind you know more than others sometimes, but I have to convince myself that I’m going to pitch this game, because if they catch you off guard, that’s not the ingredients for a good game.”
Virginia wasn’t done, however. The first two Cavaliers of the eighth reached against Kilichowski, and the Cavs elected to have Mike Papi bunt to put the tying run at second base with one out for cleanup man Joe McCarthy. He smoked a ball back up the middle that caromed off Kilichowski and was corralled by shortstop Vince Conde, who threw to first for the out. That made it 9-8 and put the tying run 90 feet away. The next hitter, Derek Fisher hit another ball hard up the middle, but Vandy had him played perfectly and Conde threw him out by a step at first to end the inning.
Kilichowski had survived the gauntlet; the moment was not too big for him.
“A lot of big moments in my life. This is the biggest, but I’ve had some great opportunities to pitch,” Kilichowski said. “My high school did really well, so we got to go to state tournaments a lot, and I got to play with USA and we won a gold. Those moments, sometimes the stage gets bigger, but you can only get so excited. I’ve already experienced that. I pitched in (a Little League tournament in) Cooperstown when I was 12 years old, there were maybe 3,000 people there, but it looked like 3 million. At that point, that was the biggest thing in my life, it was crazy, but I taught myself how to control myself there, then went to a bigger stage and controlled myself there.”
The Commodores maintained their poise even as their seven-run lead dwindled, and they escaped with a victory that put them one win away from their first national title. But Virginia has reason to feel good about Monday, too. The Cavaliers outplayed Vanderbilt for most of the game, and strong relief work by Mayberry and especially Austin Young (who yielded just one hit over 3 1/2 shutout innings) kept their pitching in good shape for the rest of the series.
“I’m just really proud of the guys that battled back at the plate tonight and kept grinding, and then our relief pitchers just kept the game in check and gave us a chance,” O’Connor said. “It was just too much to overcome.”