OMAHA—Fifteen years ago, this College World Series Finals matchup would have been inconceivable.
But over the last decade, it seemed inevitable that Vanderbilt and Virginia—who will face off in the best-of-three championship series starting Monday night—would eventually reach the pinnacle of college baseball.
When Vanderbilt hired Tim Corbin to take over its baseball program after the 2002 season, the Commodores had been to just three regionals ever, and none since 1980. They had never sniffed Omaha.
Virginia had been on the verge of dissolving its baseball program two years before it hired Brian O'Connor in the summer of 2003. It had been to regionals just three times in its history, in 1972, 1985 and 1996.
The two programs have made 21 combined trips to regionals since 2004, and five trips to the College World Series.
"I think the programs have been built along the same lines, to be honest with you," Corbin said. "Very similar timeline to when Brian became a head coach and I became a head coach. We both had great mentors. We took academic institutions as our place of teaching and coaching, and we both have done our best to maintain high academic standards while trying to reach the pinnacle of baseball."
Corbin said the two programs run into each other regularly on the recruiting trail, because both pursue the same type of players—high academic achievers, including many from the Northeast. As a result, their rosters are annually stacked with thoughtful, articulate players with intelligence on and off the baseball field.
"I love coaching at a great academic institution," O'Connor said. "The young men that we're responsible for, I believe are at both of our universities for more than just great baseball and more than winning championships. They're there to get an unbelievable education at both schools. They're there to learn to grow up and become men and be the best baseball players that they can be. So I think there's a lot of similarities. Wouldn't you know it that both of us are here in the Finals for the first time ever. I think it really speaks to the fact that you can have a top-notch baseball program and not have to sacrifice anything."
College baseball coaches aren't like major league managers, whose job is to get the most out of talent procured for them by other men. College coaches are CEOs and program builders. They must hire the right assistants, recruit the right players, maintain relationships with alumni and supporters and administrators, teach fundamental and advanced baseball skills, and foster nurturing environments to allow the impressionable young men in their charge to mature. Vanderbilt players constantly talk about the family atmosphere Corbin has created in Nashville, and second baseman Dansby Swanson spoke Sunday about that "brotherhood," which has kept prominent alumni like David Price and Pedro Alvarez close to the program.
Corbin and O'Connor are model program builders, universally respected by their peers and even by the often-critical scouts and front-office officials who work in pro ball. Both have made the perfect hires for their coaching staffs; Karl Kuhn and Kevin McMullan have been with O'Connor since he took over at Virginia, while Corbin has worked with one star assistant after another, from Erik Bakich and Derek Johnson to Josh Holliday, Travis Jewett and Scott Brown.
Both coaches hit the ground running, elevating their respective programs to national prominence in a hurry. For Vanderbilt, the turning point came in 2003, Corbin's first year. The Commodores hadn't reached the Southeastern Conference tournament in 12 years. Heading into the season, they talked about wanting to win their last game at Tennessee. Heading into that series, they needed a sweep to make the SEC tournament, while the Volunteers needed to win just one game.
"We won Friday night, we won Saturday, and we were losing by two runs in the bottom of the ninth Sunday," Corbin recalled. "This kid named Worth Scott—who was hitting .176 at the time who I was considering pinch-hitting for with a runner on first base, we had gotten the lead down to one run—comes up, and off of Luke Hochevar hits a ball over the right-field fence to win the game, and they celebrated at home plate like we had talked about. I do think that was the kickoff moment. It got our program going. It was the one moment that everyone who was tied with Vanderbilt baseball knew that, 'OK, these guys can do something. It can move forward.'"
O'Connor inherited three future big league infielders on his first team (Ryan Zimmerman, Mark Reynolds and Joe Koshansky) and finished just a half-game out of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004. He said a hallmark moment for the program was sweeping a series at Georgia Tech that March; the Cavaliers had never won a series against the Yellow Jackets before that.
"I think it really opened the players' eyes to understand that, this can really happen. That the University of Virginia, if we put in the hard work and dedication and commitment to each other to do what it takes, we can be successful at the highest level of baseball."
Virginia went on to host a regional that season, and Vanderbilt was the No. 2 seed in Charlottesville. The Commodores beat the Cavaliers 7-3 in the regional final to advance to their first super regional.
For both programs, winning bred more winning. Fans started showing up to watch the teams play; the combination of success and fan support attracted better players, which led to more winning and more fans. Both administrations committed to the baseball programs, which both have the advantage of supplementing their 11.7 athletic scholarships with generous financial aid packages.
Finally, in 2009, Virginia got over the hump and made it to Omaha for the first time. The Cavaliers got back in 2011, when Vanderbilt also broke through for the first time. Now these programs are well-oiled machines, loaded with premier talent every single year. Still, getting all the way to the summit was difficult.
"The journey here is not easy," O'Connor said. "I don't think that you can script it out. We've certainly had years that we've felt like we've had really great ballclubs and haven't been able to get here. You just can't explain that sometimes. Sometimes you just don't get that hit, you can't make that pitch. That's how hard it is to get here. There are so many great programs in this country that care about their baseball programs. You have two schools sitting here that 11, 12 years ago would not have been in this conversation about getting to Omaha. Now Vanderbilt and Virginia are in the conversation every year, potentially, to get here."
It’s a big jump from the conversation to the Finals, but the Cavs and Commodores have made it.
Here’s a look at how the teams match up:
Virginia's rotation is lined up perfectly for the Finals, with ace Nathan Kirby slated to go in the opener on seven days of rest, and fellow lefty Brandon Waddell in line to start Tuesday on six days' rest. Kirby, a first-team All-American and sure-fire first-round pick in the 2015 draft, limited Mississippi's potent offense to just one hit over seven strong innings in Virginia's CWS opener last Sunday. Waddell followed with another strong start Tuesday, holding TCU to two runs (one earned) over seven innings.
Both lefties are proven front-of-the-rotation aces (Waddell held the role as a freshman last year, and Kirby was the Friday starter this year). Kirby's stuff is more overpowering, with a low-90s fastball that reaches 94 and a wipeout slider. But Waddell sits at 90 and has a quality 81-84 slider of his own. Both are formidable, and No. 3 starter Josh Sborz has the most explosive stuff of all, with a fastball that reaches the mid-90s and a devastating 85-87 slider. But Sborz would have to come back on three days of rest to start in a potential third game Wednesday, making Artie Lewicki or Whit Mayberry potential starting options Wednesday if they don't get bullpen work in the first two games of the series.
Vanderbilt is loaded with power arms of its own in the rotation and the bullpen, but its starters are less consistent with their control. First-round pick Tyler Beede (owner of a 91-95 mph fastball and filthy changeup) could not get out of the fourth inning due to shaky control Monday against UC Irvine, and Tyler Ferguson (who uses a fastball that sits at 93-95 and a power slider) was chased in the first inning Friday against Texas for his own strike-throwing woes. Even ace Carson Fulmer walked six Saturday against Texas, exiting in the fifth inning. The Commodores used Walker Buehler out of the bullpen after Beede struggled, and he responded with 5 1/3 hitless innings. Buehler is 12-2, 2.27 in 15 starts on the year, and he and Beede both have a week of rest heading into Monday.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said Sunday that he and his staff were still debating between starting Beede or Buehler in the opener, but they figure to start the first two games, in some order. Beede can beat anyone if he pitches like he did in the regional against Xavier, when he struck out 14 and walked just two over eight shutout innings. But he has struggled in each of his last two outings, and it's impossible to predict which Beede will show up.
Both bullpens are deep and very talented, but Virginia's bullpen has been taxed less because its starters have gone deeper and it won its bracket in three games, rather than having to play a fourth game like Vanderbilt did. That gives Virginia a significant edge here.
The UVa. bullpen has yet to allow a run in 14 innings in Omaha and owns a 0.90 ERA in the NCAA tournament. Lewicki and Nick Howard give the Cavaliers two power righties with strikeout stuff at the back of the 'pen, and the veteran Mayberry is an ultra-experienced, versatile long relief/setup man. Connor Jones is yet another power righthander who hasn't even pitched yet in Omaha; he struggled with his control down the stretch, but he was excellent for most of the season, and he gives the Cavs another stopgap option. Austin Young is the key matchup lefthander.
Vanderbilt leaned heavily on its two bullpen stalwarts in its last two games, as sidewinder Brian Miller threw 117 pitches over 7 1/3 innings in relief of Ferguson on Friday, and slider specialist Hayden Stone threw 72 pitches in 5 2/3 innings Saturday against Texas. Neither will be available before Wednesday, leaving hard-throwing Adam Ravenelle as the key bullpen arm Monday, along with lefthanders John Killichowski and Jared Miller. If Vanderbilt's Game One starter struggles, it could also turn to one of its other starters in a long relief role, as it did with Buehler last Monday.
The Commodores have been the best offensive team in Omaha, leading the field in the triple-slash categories (.259/.365/.319) and scoring (an explosive 3.75 runs per game). Virginia is second in batting (.239), OBP (.315) and scoring (three runs per game). Over a season-long sample size, the Cavs rank 84th in the nation in batting (.279) and 90th in scoring (5.5 runs per game), while the Commodores are 73rd in batting (.281) and 68th in scoring (5.7).
These are two evenly matched offenses, but Virginia gets the slight edge in talent, with a more formidable heart of the lineup (Mike Papi, Joe McCarthy, Kenny Towns and Derek Fisher) and more firepower at the bottom of the lineup (Brandon Downes and John La Prise).
The Commodores have struggled to get production from the bottom third of their lineup, but the top two hitters (Dansby Swanson and Bryan Reynolds) are very good hitters who made the 'Dores go. No. 3 hitter Vince Conde (.154 in Omaha) and cleanup man Zander Wiel (.214) have struggled of late, but Johnny Norwood (.333) and Rhett Wiseman (.429) have provided a boost behind them, which is particularly important after the loss of Xavier Turner for a violation of NCAA rules after two CWS games, thinning out the lineup some. Tyler Campbell is 3-for-8 in two games since taking over for Turner, providing a spark in the No. 9 hole. The Commodores have done a very good job throughout their lineup working counts, fouling off pitches and driving up pitch counts. They have had the best offensive approach of any team in Omaha.
But Virginia still gets the slight edge here based on talent and track records.
Slight Edge: Virginia
Both teams have outstanding defense, and both have fielded well in Omaha, making a combined errors (Vandy is fielding .980, Virginia .986). On the season, the Commodores are fielding .975 (24th in the nation), while the Cavaliers are fielding .982 (third). Both teams have sterling middle-infield duos (Conde and Swanson for Vandy, Daniel Pinero and Branden Cogswell for Virginia). The Cavs get the edge behind the plate (Nate Irving/Robbie Coman) and in center field (Brandon Downes), while the four corners are a push.
Slight Edge: Virginia
Virginia is the older club, with six upperclassmen in its starting lineup compared to just two for Vanderbilt. UVa.'s rotation is all underclassmen, but Mayberry, Lewicki, Howard and Young give the bullpen a veteran core. Beede is the lone upperclassman in Vandy's rotation, while Brian Miller and Ravenelle are juniors in the bullpen.
But by this point in the season, freshmen aren't freshmen anymore; both teams are battle-tested, tough and confident. Virginia, the preseason No. 1, has been a bit more consistent from start to finish this year. The Cavaliers have played like a veteran team on a mission, and their focus has never really wavered. Vanderbilt had more growing pains with its younger team, though the group that has reached the Finals has certainly proven itself.
"This season, from the beginning to the middle part, it's certainly a progression," Corbin said. "There's maturity issues you work through. And I'm not talking about large issues, I'm just talking about baseball issues, school issues, social issues, things you have to work through when kids are 18, 19 years old. But as the season has progressed, we've come across experiences that have enabled us and moved us forward, and we've gained confidence through it. Last year, it was like flying a plane that was on autopilot. And you'd come to the ballpark, and your sons, who are now 21, 22 years old, have everything in order for you . . . We just ran out of gas at the wrong time.
"This team has gained energy as the season progressed. It's two completely different units, which is great, because they're always different. We find ourselves in a spot that we may have should have been last year. Not that either team didn't earn their way here; we have. We've just done it in a different way."
Virginia, with an older team that compares with Vanderbilt's 2013 club that set a record for SEC wins in the regular season, managed to never run out of gas.
"Watching him and his group do what they've done this year, a very difficult thing," Corbin said of O'Connor and the Cavs. "We've tried to do that, and we weren't very good at it. Last year we were perfect for a long period of time, then at the end of the year we faltered. They've done it the entire year. To win 52 games while being that team, means they've had a lot of connectivity, played very consistent, and they've stayed in the moment."
"We've got a special group of guys that, you are able to, as a coach, back off a little bit and let them play because of the veteran leadership we do have," O'Connor said. "Over the last four or five weeks it's been a very loose and aggressive bunch that's hat a lot of fun together and been able to manage themselves."
Slight Edge: Virginia