Vanderbilt finds itself within 27 outs of a national championship because Virginia had trouble getting three in one inning Monday night at the College World Series.
The Commodores scored nine runs in the third inning against a team that hadn’t given up that many in any game this season, then hung on to post a 9-8 victory in the opening game of the best-of-three championship series before 20,755 at TD Ameritrade Park.
Vanderbilt can wrap up the second national title in school history — its first came in women’s bowling — with a victory in Tuesday night’s second game. Given the way Virginia almost turned one disastrous inning into a win on Monday, no one on either side is expecting anything but a dogfight.
“This is why it’s a national championship series rather than a national championship game,’’ Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “If we come out and play with the heart we did tonight, we’ll have a chance tomorrow night.’’
Virginia (52-15) showed plenty of fight in answering Vanderbilt’s nine-run third with three runs in its half of the inning. The Cavaliers trimmed their deficit to 9-7 with a two-run fifth, and got within a run in the eighth before Adam Ravenelle nailed down the win for Vanderbilt with a perfect ninth inning.
Ravenelle’s second save of the season preserved John Kilichowski’s first career win. The freshman right-hander, who hadn’t pitched since May 17, threw two perfect innings after taking over in the sixth. Then, after allowing a pair of singles to open the eighth, Kilichowski made some big pitches to keep Virginia from tying the game.
Branden Cogswell and Daniel Pinero opened the Virginia eighth with singles and moved into scoring position when Mike Papi, the Cavaliers’ best hitter, bunted for a sacrifice. Virginia’s next hitter, Joe McCarthy, followed with a hot shot up the middle that bounced off Kilichowski’s foot to shortstop Vince Conde.
Cogswell scored on the infield out, with Pinero moving to third. Kilichowski stranded him there by getting Derek Fisher to ground out to Conde, whose throw to first just got the Virginia runner.
“The fact that he can make those plays is huge,’’ said Kilichowski, praising Conde’s effort on both balls. “All of our guys see that. That picks us up and brings momentum.’’
Ravenelle then choked off Virginia’s hopes for one more rally with a groundout sandwiched between a couple of popups in the ninth.
“We’re fortunate to win that game, for sure,’’ said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, whose team improved to 50-20. “No one could have scripted that particular game, and if anyone said they could, they’d be lying.’’
The most inexplicable aspect of Monday’s game might have been Vanderbilt’s third inning. Virginia ace Nathan Kirby, who had issued just 28 base on balls in his first 113 innings this season, walked five in the span of seven batters.
Three came with the bases loaded, turning a 2-1 Virginia lead into a 4-2 deficit.
“I just couldn’t find my release point,’’ Kirby said. “It hadn’t happened all year but it happened tonight. It had kind of hit me in the first inning but I tried to fight through it, and it got to me there in the third inning.’’
Kirby left the game after Vanderbilt scored its fifth run on first baseman Papi’s fielding error. The Commodores used a sacrifice fly to push the lead to 6-2 before Tyler Campbell delivered his second double of the inning, this one with the bases loaded.
Campbell’s first double in the inning was a drive to the base of the left-field bullpen fence off Kirby.
“I knew he had some good velocity, so I choked up on the bat,’’ Campbell said. “I was looking to go middle away but he came in (with a pitch) and I saw it. Second at-bat, that was a little more of a reaction swing. I just got it down the line.’’
The nine runs were the most scored by a team in an inning in the four-year history of the stadium. It was also the most runs in a CWS half inning since Stanford scored 11 runs against Florida State in a 2008 game at Rosenblatt Stadium.
In the end, the big inning almost wasn’t enough for Vanderbilt. Virginia countered with three runs off Commodores starter Walker Buehler in its half of the third. The Cavaliers then mounted another two-out rally — all of their runs came with two outs — in the fifth.
Brandon Downes tripled and scored on Nate Irving’s double down the right-field line. After Jared Miller, Vanderbilt’s second pitcher, walked Cogswell, Pinero singled up the middle to trim the Commodores’ lead to 9-7.
Up came Papi, whose walk-off double gave Virginia a 2-1 win the Cavaliers’ CWS opener against Mississippi. The owner of 11 home runs this season, Papi drove a ball into the right-center gap that momentarily looked as if it had a chance to leave the park until Vanderbilt center fielder John Norwood ran it down on the warning track.
“That’s the first thought that goes through your head,’’ said Downes when asked if he thought his teammate had made home-run contact. “But you have to realize where you’re playing and how big this park is.
“You’re going to need a little help getting it out of this park. I thought it might get a gap but it hung out there a little too long. Mike put great swings on balls all day, and it’s unfortunate that he got under that one.’’
Kilichowski provided Vanderbilt with some stability when he retired Virginia in order in the seventh and eighth innings. He then survived the eighth before Ravenelle made quick work of the Cavaliers in the ninth.
“In order to win that game, we had to pass the baton from a pitching standpoint, and we did,’’ Corbin said. “We talked today about trying to get a Tyler Campbell from one of the guys on the pitching staff that hadn’t been in there yet.
“Johnny certainly did that. He prepared himself well for this moment.’’
Corbin’s reference to Campbell recognizes the contribution the Commodores have gotten from a little-used backup who has come up big since regular third baseman Xavier Turner was declared ineligible for violating NCAA rules three games ago.
Campbell had two hits in his first CWS game. He brought home the game-winning run with an infield single in Saturday’s bracket championship game against Texas, and then added two doubles and matched his season’s RBI total with three in Monday’s game.
“It seems that every year here there is somebody that rises up in certain moments that maybe people didn’t expect,’’ O’Connor said. “We were fully aware he’s just been placed in there three games ago and were aware of his statistics.
“You have to credit the young man. He’s been thrust in there on the biggest stage in college baseball, and he’s performed.’’
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