OMAHA—Virginia beat writers have it made.
A reporter who covered UVa.'s entire postseason run could have built his story around a different Cavalier after every game. There's no storyline fatigue. One day the hero might be one of the team's big-name stars, like Nathan Kirby, Nick Howard, Mike Papi, Joe McCarthy, Branden Cogswell or Derek Fisher. In the super regional against Maryland, Kenny Towns and Brandon Downes stepped forward to help lead the offense, while Brandon Waddell and Josh Sborz turned in strong starts on the mound. Pick your hero.
Catcher Nate Irving sparked the UVa. offense out of the No. 9 hole in each of the team's first two wins in Omaha, but he was out of the lineup in the bracket final against Mississippi; backup Robbie Coman started behind the plate with Josh Sborz on the mound, as he has all season. Coman picked up where Irving left off, going 2-for-4 and putting the Cavaliers ahead for good with a two-run single in the fourth inning. Sborz, Artie Lewicki and Howard stuffed the potent Ole Miss offense from that point forward, allowing just three hits over the final six innings to preserve a 4-1 win, sending the Cavs to the CWS Finals for the first time in program history.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: The Rebels led 1-0 heading into the bottom of the third and had a chance to take control of the game, loading the bases with two outs and the dangerous Will Allen coming to the plate. Allen hit a Josh Sborz slider hard—but third baseman Kenny Towns snagged it for the out, stranding the bases loaded. Virginia followed with three runs in the fourth and never looked back.
The Hero: Choosing a hero often seems difficult for Virginia games, because the Cavaliers get big contributions from so many players. We'll give the nod to catcher Robbie Coman, whose two-run single in the fourth put Virginia ahead for good. He also added a double in the sixth inning, making a significant impact as a part-time catcher hitting in the No. 9 hole.
You Might Have Missed: The Cavaliers have been utterly dominant on the mound in Omaha, allowing just two earned runs in 33 innings (0.55 staff ERA). The Virginia bullpen, led by Artie Lewicki and Nick Howard, has yet to give up a run in 14 innings in Omaha, and owns a 0.90 ERA in the NCAA tournament.
Virginia was in good position when the game was suspended by rain Friday night; the Cavs had runners on first and second with no outs in the second inning. But Ole Miss reliever Scott Weathersby escaped that jam, thanks in part to a big strikeout of Coman with runners at second and third. The Rebels took the lead with a run in the bottom of the second against Sborz, who threw seven pitches in a 1-2-3 first Friday night and returned to the mound when play resumed.
Ole Miss had a chance to take control of the game in the third, when it loaded the bases with two out, but Sborz escaped. Then Virginia wrested the momentum away for good in the top of the fourth against Ole Miss ace Chris Ellis, who had taken over in the third inning. Two walks sandwiched around a hit-and-run single loaded the bases for Coman. This time, he came through with a single to the right-center gap on a 92 mph fastball, giving Virginia a lead it would not relinquish.
"I think I got a little antsy there in the first at-bat in the College World Series—it's a big moment," Coman said. "But then, the ability to bounce back and come up clutch for this team is just a huge relief."
The Cavs tacked on another run on a Cogswell squeeze, and added an insurance run in the seventh on a McCarthy RBI double. But the key was the fourth inning.
"You look at the inning we gave up three, the 9-hole guy that's a part-time player for them gets the big hit and breaks the game open," Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. "And that's what it comes down to. It comes down to who is going to get the big hit or who doesn't walk them or make the errors."
Good luck trying to predict who will get the big hit for Virginia. Irving and Coman have provided huge sparks in Omaha, helping make the bottom third of the lineup (which also includes Downes and John La Prise) very dangerous.
"A lot of people assume that the guys like Papi and Downes and Fisher are supposed to carry the load," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "You know, that's why it's a complete team. Maybe as a pitcher you've got to work so hard against those guys because they're so skilled that those other guys have been able to clean up a little bit. I've said it all year long: I think when we're doing the things offensively like we're capable of, we're a pretty darn good lineup one through nine."
So you could build this story around Robbie Coman, part-time player with a flair for the dramatic. Or you could build it around Sborz, who spent nearly all season in the weekend rotation, then was replaced by Lewicki in the final regular-season weekend by Lewicki. The Cavaliers used Sborz to start the decisive third game of their super regional against Maryland, and he responded with seven shutout innings in his first start since May 10 (we already told that story). He was back on the mound in a key game in Omaha, and O'Connor said he never even considered going back to ace Nathan Kirby on five days of rest. O'Connor stuck with Sborz through his rocky second and third innings Saturday, and the big power righthander wound up lasting five innings, allowing just one unearned run.
He handed off to Lewicki to start the sixth, and you could certainly make Lewicki the star of this story if you wanted. The senior righthander allowed just one hit over three shutout innings Saturday, overpowering the Rebels with a 92-95 fastball and excellent power slider. Lewicki has a strong case as Virginia's postseason MVP; he has a 0.00 ERA in 17 postseason innings. He has given up just one hit in seven scoreless innings in Omaha over three sterling relief outings.
Lewicki entered the postseason as Virginia's No. 2 starter, and he opened its regional opener against Bucknell, throwing seven shutout innings. But with Virginia's season on the line in the second game of the super regional against Maryland, O'Connor called upon Lewicki out of the bullpen, where he has remained ever since. His role as a moment-of-truth bullpen bridge guy might seem familiar to UVa. fans; Tyler Wilson made a similar transition in Omaha in 2011 after spending all season as a standout starter.
"Fortunately it's worked out and he's appeared in all three games—and all three games have been tight," O'Connor said. "And he's just stepped up for his ballclub in an important role."
Lewicki's emergence as a dominant senior has been one of the best stories on a team full of great stories. He had Tommy John surgery in the summer of 2012 and was limited to just two innings last year.
"I got back pretty quick, in about eight months," Lewicki said. "I had good velocity, I was throwing my breaking ball, but my recovery was terrible. So after that time I had to shut down another three or four months just to be safe and make sure it was really cemented in there before I could ramp up again. I'd say it probably took me a solid 16 to 18 months until I was feeling good like I do now.
"But I feel like my body's stronger because of all the rehab and working out I had to do. I feel like I'm back where I was, probably even better."
He sure doesn't look like an eighth-round senior sign. He looks like a top-two-rounds power pitcher, just another marquee player on a team loaded with incredible talent and depth.
"They just make it very hard on you," Bianco said. "Man, they're good. They can really pitch. They can really hit and defend. They run the bases. They're just an outstanding ballclub, and obviously deserve to win."