OMAHA – When Virginia pitcher Connor Jones reflects on Monday night’s game, maybe it will be a fond memory, the time he matched Vanderbilt ace Carson Fulmer pitch for pitch through five innings.
Each pitch seemed more lethal than the next, one batter after another hopelessly swinging and missing. Then the stalemate was broken with the swing of Commodores freshman Will Toffey’s bat, slapping a pitch to deep left field and sending two runners home.
The two-run lead with one of college baseball’s best pitchers on the mound proved insurmountable. Jones’ memory of his duel with Fulmer always will be a little bittersweet, as Virginia lost Game 1 of the College World Series finals to Vanderbilt, 5-1.
“All of a sudden, I look at the scoreboard and it’s the sixth or seventh inning, and we have one or two hits,” Jones said. “It’s frustrating from a trying-to-get-run-support standpoint, but I thought he did a great job tonight.
“At some point, when I step back and kind of look at this from a different perspective, it’ll be pretty cool to see we went toe-to-toe there for five or six innings.”
The best-of-three series in Omaha will continue on Tuesday. The Commodores need one more win to repeat as national champions and again leave the Cavaliers as runners-up. Vanderbilt will turn to left-hander Philip Pfeifer; Virginia’s pitching plan is uncertain, as consistent depth remains a concern.
“We’re certainly going to need to piece it together,” Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor said.
Locked in a scoreless standoff through five innings – with just four hits combined in that span – Jones was inches from retiring his ninth straight Vanderbilt batter in the sixth inning. With two outs, Zander Wiel hit an infield single. Jones walked the next batter to put runners on first and second for Toffey, whose stand-up double scored both.
The Commodores added three insurance runs in the seventh, but they weren’t necessary. Right-hander Carson Fulmer threw 7 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing just one hit, an infield single, until the eighth. Vanderbilt’s bullpen finished the job despite allowing a run in the ninth.
“I saw Carson pitch in high school, and he’s continued to develop,” O’Connor said. “I like his competitive spirit. Certainly, he’s going to come at you and give it his best.”
Both teams tabbed their aces for Game 1. Jones, who had 3.05 ERA and a 7-2 record in 17 starts entering Monday, had more than a week of rest leading up to his start; he last pitched against Arkansas, a 5-3 victory in the first College World Series game.
On Monday, Jones was pulled after 6 1/3 innings; he was charged with four earned runs on seven hits. Starting left fielder Kevin Doherty replaced him on the mound trailing 3-0 and couldn’t stop the bleeding. Vanderbilt shortstop Dansby Swanson, the first overall pick in the 2015 MLB draft, entered the night 1 for 13 in Omaha. But he broke out of the slump with an RBI double off Doherty to make it 4-0. Bryan Reynolds added an RBI single to cap the rally.
Fulmer, the No. 8 pick in the recent MLB draft, told reporters he felt ill earlier on Monday, experiencing chills. He looked at ease in the game and was nearly untouchable as he struck out eight and walked two. Of the 119 pitches he threw, 72 were strikes, and no Virginia runner got past second base with him on the mound.
“He did a phenomenal job of getting ahead with the breaking ball and then working in from there,” Doherty said. “But he did a great job with all of his pitches.”
Lacking a stable third starter since left-hander Nathan Kirby suffered a lat strain in mid-April, Virginia’s pitching options will be limited in Game 2. After starting on Saturday, left-hander Brandon Waddell is not available. O’Connor said closer Josh Sborz could be a limited option out of the bullpen, but does not anticipate him being an option to start.
He also said Kirby, who made his first start in two months against Florida on Friday night, will “probably not” start, but he hadn’t spoken to him on Monday to know how his bullpen session went and didn’t want to speculate.
“I told this team they’ve done a great job of handling adversity all year long when their back’s been against the wall,” O’Connor said Monday. “I would imagine tomorrow night is going to be no different.”