OMAHA—Sometimes, immortality comes to those who wait.
Warren Morris waited through a wrist injury that sidelined him for much of the 1996 season. He ended it with a College World Series-winning home run.
John Norwood waited two seasons for a chance to play every day at Vanderbilt. He earned that chance in 2014, and on the last day of the season, he ensured that his name will be remembered forever, alongside those of Morris and Whit Merrifield and the other select few who have provided some of the most indelible moments in CWS lore.
Norwood blasted a tie-breaking home run in the eighth inning of Wednesday's decisive third game of the CWS Finals, propelling Vanderbilt to a 3-2 win against Virginia and its first national championship.
But if Norwood had his way, the names of Carson Fulmer and Dansby Swanson, Vince Conde, Hayden Stone, Rhett Wiseman and so many others would go down in history right there with his. All of them will be remembered as part of the team that brought Vanderbilt its second national championship in any sport (the other came in women's bowling in 2007).
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: Even after Johnny Norwood's solo homer gave Vanderbilt the lead in the eighth inning, the game hung in the balance. Virginia responded by loading the bases with one out in the bottom of the frame, but Adam Ravenelle escaped by getting back-to-back fielder's choices, crushing Virginia's final chance to tie or win the game.
The Hero: Norwood, who moved up a spot into the cleanup position Wednesday, reached base safely in all four plate appearances, finishing 3-for-3 with two of Vanderbilt's three runs. His missile into the left-field bullpen on a 97 mph Nick Howard fastball in the eighth inning will go down in history as the lasting image of the 2014 College World Series. That solo home run broke a 2-2 tie.
You Might Have Missed: Vanderbilt's speed and aggressiveness on the basepaths was a difference maker right through the final game. A double steal in the first inning led to Vandy's first run; the Commodores finished with 17 stolen bases in Omaha, tying a CWS record set by Oklahoma State in 1955.
"I didn't bring it to them," Norwood insisted on the field after the game. "It was the people way before us, and they caused us to be here. Coach (Tim) Corbin did a great job getting a bunch of great guys year-in and year-out, and he finally got one. So it's an amazing feeling to do that for the university."
As the Commodores celebrated on the field, their alumni celebrated from afar. One Vanderbilt big leaguer after another rejoiced on Twitter, sending out heartfelt expressions of gratitude and joy for Corbin, a man they love like another father.
After Vanderbilt second baseman Dansby Swanson was announced as Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series, Corbin wrapped him in a huge bear hug before he climbed the dais to accept his award. Both were overcome by emotion.
"You know, he's like my second dad," Swanson said moments later. "He's the greatest guy, and to win something like this for him, as a team, you can't even control your emotions with it, really. I mean, I've already cried twice hugging him. I love him to death, and I know every other player does, and we respect him. I think he's the best coach in college baseball. He's a leader, he's a mentor, and he lives out his life the way he preaches. And that means a lot."
Corbin and his fine coaching staff have built a model program in part through their incredible ability to recruiting marquee players with winning makeup. The current groups of sophomores and juniors both rated as the No. 1 recruiting classes in college baseball when they showed up on campus in the falls of 2011 and 2012. Vanderbilt has gotten plenty of meaningful contributions from talented freshmen in recent years, but Norwood and righthander Adam Ravenelle were raw talents when they arrived in Nashville in 2011, and both played sparingly for loaded Vandy teams over their first two seasons.
But they kept working hard, they stayed patient and waited for their opportunities. The coaching staff stayed patient too, and helped them develop into key cogs on a championship team. With a national title hanging in the balance, it was Norwood who gave Vanderbilt the lead, and Ravenelle who preserved it, working two scoreless innings of relief for his second save of the Finals, and third of the CWS. He had no saves in his career before Omaha.
"You know who I think has to be just as patient as them is their parents, because I think a lot of times in today's world, parents have a lot of influence on their kids," Corbin said. "And for parents to sit back and say, 'It will happen, just stay with it, just stick with it,' the Ravenelles are that way, Johnny Norwood's mother is that way, and they have been patient. Because I told them they would have to wait their turn in order to get out there. But through that, and their stick-to-it-iveness, and training, and the coaches, (Travis) Jewett and (Scott) Brown, those guys have really taken off."
Virginia had erased a 2-0 deficit with two runs in the sixth inning to chase Carson Fulmer, but unlike in the sixth inning a day earlier, the Cavaliers could not surge ahead. They stranded the bases loaded that inning against Hayden Stone, leaving the game tied heading into the eighth.
Norwood, who finished 3-for-3 with two of Vandy's three runs, came to the plate with one out in the top of the eighth and tomahawked a 97 mph fastball from UVa. closer Nick Howard into the left-field bullpen. It was just the third home run of the CWS, and the first for Vanderbilt since May 16. It was the first home run allowed all season by Howard, a first-round pick who had been dominant in his two previous CWS appearances, allowing just two hits over five shutout innings.
"I was just hoping that it didn't have enough topspin that it would hit the fence," Corbin said. "But Johnny's strength and bat speed, with the velocity of Howard—that doesn't happen to that kid. A 97 mile an hour fastball and someone to turn it around like that takes a great amount of ability. I'm just happy for Johnny . . . The kid has grown so much as a person and as a player, even in the last four weeks. You can talk to the players about his approach at the plate, his calmness, and just his overall offensive productivity. So just a big moment."
But once again, Virginia fought back in the bottom of the frame. The Cavaliers put runners on first and second with no outs in the bottom of the eighth, prompting Vanderbilt to summon Ravenelle to take over for Stone. After a sacrifice bunt put the tying run at third and the go-ahead run at second, Ravenelle hit Kenny Towns to load the bases with one out. Then he got John La Prise to hit a chopper back to the mound and threw home for the force out. The dangerous Brandon Downes followed with a ground ball toward the hole on the left side of the infield, and Conde fielded it cleanly and made a quick transfer to get the force at second base, extinguishing the threat.
Ravenelle then worked a 1-2-3 ninth inning, striking out Branden Cogswell and Daniel Pinero to end the game and trigger a dogpile around Ravenelle on the mound.
"Coming into the College World Series, I couldn't tell you that I was going to be closing games out here," Ravenelle said. "But it's just an opportunity, and I was just trying to take it pitch by pitch, and let my defense work, and I've trusted these guys all year. These guys are the best defense in the country, so that's all I was trying to do."
With the game on the line, the sure-handed Conde made the crucial play in the eighth inning, atoning for his uncharacteristic error in the sixth, which allowed Virginia to score the tying run. Swanson also made a standout defensive play in the sixth, diving to his left to snare a Branden Cogswell hot shot and help prevent Virginia from putting together a bigger inning. Swanson was the best all-around player in Omaha, repeatedly impacting the game with his stellar defense as well as his timely hitting. He had two more hits in the final game, including a single that led to Vanderbilt's first run in the first inning.
And Fulmer, pitching on three days' rest, held Virginia's explosive offense scoreless on one hit for the first five innings. After issuing six walks in his last start against Texas, Fulmer was much sharper in the winner-take-all showdown against UVa., walking two and allowing just three hits over 5 1/3 strong innings. It was the best outing of the CWS for a Vanderbilt starter, and it allowed the Commodores to head into the second half of the game from a position of strength. He said he did not make any adjustments from one start to the next; he was simply resolved to rise to the huge occasion—which so many Commodores have dreamed about for so long.
"You think back to the moment where you lay in bed, you toss the baseball up and you're like, 'OK.' Last year I was laying there and I said, 'Man, I just really want a national championship,'" Fulmer said while hugging the national championship trophy to his chest in a hallway underneath TD Ameritrade Park. "Going out there you throw everything away, throw the mechanics away, and you go, 'OK, I'm here to compete. I'm here to give my team a chance to win.' I couldn't tell you the first couple innings because it just goes by so quick. It's something special holding this trophy, that's for sure."