OMAHA—It isn’t easy being an opposing coach against Virginia. With a lineup loaded with talent from top to bottom—but especially in the middle—the Cavaliers force opponents to make tough choices when the game is on the line. Sometimes there is no right choice. Pitch to one dangerous run producer, or pitch to another. Hold your breath and hope for the best.
With a man on second base and two outs in the ninth in a tie game Sunday night, Mississippi’s Mike Bianco had to choose between pitching to Mike Papi, or walking him to face Joe McCarthy. He had to decide whether to bring a lefthander out of the bullpen to face one of those two lefties, or stick with righthander Aaron Greenwood, his moment-of-truth reliever all season long.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: The game hung in the balance until the final pitch, when Mike Papi worked the count full against Ole Miss bullpen stopper Aaron Greenwood and smashed a walk-off RBI double to right-center to lift the Cavaliers to a 2-1 win. It was the first CWS game decided by a walk-off hit since 2011, when South Carolina beat Virginia in a 13-inning classic.The Hero: For seven innings, Nathan Kirby was the big story Sunday, but his sterling performance was overshadowed by Papi’s ninth-inning heroics. Papi finished 2-for-4 with a single and the biggest double of his life.“Every walk-off is awesome,” Papi said. “It’s speechless. You don’t know what to say. But having done it in the College World Series makes it even that much better.”You Might Have Missed: The Cavaliers are blessed with two quality catchers, and Robbie Coman started the final two games of the Charlottesville Super Regional. But Nate Irving has been Kirby’s catcher all season long, and he got the nod in the No. 9 hole Sunday. He scored both of Virginia’s runs, leading off the fifth with a single and scoring on Joe McCarthy’s RBI single, then leading off the ninth with a walk and scoring on Papi’s double.
Bianco chose to let Greenwood face Papi. Greenwood made a couple of good pitches, and the count ran full. Then Papi blasted a 3-2 pitch into the right-center-field gap for a walk-off RBI double, lifting the Cavaliers to a 2-1 win.
In a similar situation in the fifth inning, the Rebels intentionally walked Papi with first base open—and McCarthy followed with an RBI single to center field. Pick your poison.
“We were going to pitch him tough,” Bianco said of the final at-bat against Papi. “He’s really good, but you’ve got three lefthanders in a row and McCarthy right under him. It’s not like you feel a little uncomfortable just pitching around him and walking him to get to McCarthy. We did that last time, and McCarthy was able to get a base hit. And you’ve still got (Derek) Fisher behind that. So it’s three guys, not the place that you want to be with the winning run at second base.
“And Aaron was close—just a pitch away from getting out of it. But Mike did a good job of staying on that ball.”
What else is new? Papi might be the toughest out in college baseball; he ranked second in the nation with a .517 on-base percentage as a sophomore last year and ranks second in the nation in walks this year. He always forces pitchers to work, and when he gets his pitch, he drives it more often than not. So Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said he was “pretty calm and confident” with Papi coming to the plate in the ninth.
“Mike Papi’s certainly had a great career here,” O’Connor said. “He’s gotten a lot of big clutch hits for us. He’s one, in his career, has performed in key moments for his team. So certainly (there was) a lot of confidence in our dugout for him.”
Papi’s game-winner would have been a walk-off home run in most college baseball parks, but at TD Ameritrade it landed on the warning track. Still, it was clear the game was over as it left his bat.
“I knew it when I got it, I got it probably as well as I could have,” Papi said. “But I was just hoping and praying it was going to fall somewhere out there in this cavernous ballpark.”
Bianco used the phrase “pick your poison” in another context Sunday, referring to his team’s approach against Virginia starter Nathan Kirby. The sophomore lefthander carved up the Rebels for seven shutout innings, allowing just one hit and facing one batter over the minimum. He hit his spots with his low-90s fastball, and his vicious 82-85 slider was late and sharp, staying in the zone and then diving out at the last moment, giving the Ole Miss hitters fits. He walked the first two batters of the eighth inning and exited the game, having thrown just 84 pitches.
“You can sit there and try to take, but he’s not the guy to take against because he’ll just eat you up,” Bianco said. “He’s a strike-thrower, and he’s going to be strike one a lot. You almost pick your poison. You can sit there and try to take pitches and then put yourself in even worse counts. We chose not to do that. We chose to try to be aggressive.
“But obviously he’s lights-out. He’s been like that—he’s thrown a no-hitter. I think he’s thrown a one-hitter. So he was just too good for us today.”
And yet, Ole Miss was able to tie the game in the eighth after those back-to-back walks, getting a run home with an RBI groundout to shortstop. Rebels ace Chris Ellis was not as dominant as Kirby, but he certainly did his job, limiting UVa.’s potent offense to just a run on six hits and four walks over six strong innings.
But after Ellis walked the leadoff man in the seventh, Bianco had to make another choice: use his key lefthander, Jeremy Massie, to face the lefthanded trio of Papi, McCarthy and Fisher in the seventh inning, or save him for later? Obviously, in that key late-game situation, the choice was clear, and Massie navigated the inning without allowing a run, with help from a brilliant play in center field by Auston Bousfield, who raced back and made an over-the-shoulder basket catch on a Derek Fisher shot to dead-center.
The Rebels played a good game. They played outstanding defense, and they pitched very well, and they came from behind to tie the game in the late innings.
Virginia just played a little better, in a tense battle between two excellent clubs performing at a high level.
“I’m really proud of our club because I thought we played really great baseball in all areas of the game—defensively, pitching and offensively,” O’Connor said. “And we’ll be looking forward to Tuesday night.”