OMAHA, Neb. – Nathan Kirby heard the umpire’s yell to signal a strike, and the left-hander launched his hat and glove in the air, his two hands raised in victory. Catcher Matt Thaiss slammed him with a hug, and soon the rest of the Virginia baseball team sprinted to join them, eventually toppling to the ground in bliss.
With a 4-2 win over Vanderbilt, the Cavaliers became national champions for the first time in program history, making up for a runner-up finish to the Commodores last season and ending a 60-year drought for ACC teams.
The celebration was made sweeter by the journey, one Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor never forgot to tell his team to savor. The Cavaliers won their first national championship in a fashion emblematic of their bewildering season, coming through when it mattered.
On short rest and with little bullpen depth behind him, Virginia’s steadiest starting pitcher in the College World Series held the Commodores’ bats dormant deep into the game. Then a freshman – one of 14 on the roster – drove in the Cavaliers’ first three runs. Finally, an ace who unexpectedly imploded and lost his command against Vanderbilt last year got redemption on the mound with a trophy-clinching save.
TD Ameritrade Park had been a house of horrors for Kirby, but on Wednesday night, there was only joy. In Game 1 of last year’s championship series, he unraveled before the Cavaliers could even get another pitcher warm in the bullpen, allowing five runs in 21/3 innings. Virginia went on to lose the game and then the series, unable to explain why Kirby suddenly lost his composure.
While his teammates hung on the railing anxiously, U-V-A chants ringing out, Kirby pitched two scoreless innings of relief Wednesday night, exorcising his College World Series demons. He gave up a single with two outs in the ninth, prompting two nerve-wracking mound visits. But the result was still ultimately a wild dogpile.
Not burdened by the same Omaha heartbreak as his older teammates, freshman first baseman Pavin Smith blasted a two-run home run to right-center to tie the game at 2 in the fourth. With runners on first and second and two outs in the fifth, Smith plated the go-ahead run with a single to left.
Virginia left-hander Brandon Waddell kept the game within reach for Smith’s heroics. The junior started on three days’ rest. A starter in Virginia’s weekend rotation since his freshman year, Waddell finished his Virginia career with a strong outing, lasting seven innings and surrendering just two runs on four hits in his third start in nine days. After his 1-2-3 seventh inning, he was greeted in the dugout with hugs and handshakes, clearing the stage for Kirby. Afterward, he clung to the trophy on the field.
Waddell had a rocky start to his outing, walking Vanderbilt’s leadoff batter on four pitches in the first. Rhett Wiseman hit a double next, putting runners on second and third for Dansby Swanson, the No. 1 overall pick in the recent MLB draft. Swanson grounded out but still knocked in a run. Zander Wiel gave the Commodores an early 2-0 lead with a double down the left field line in the next at-bat.
But Smith came through in the fourth. After Vanderbilt starter Walker Buehler walked Kenny Towns to start the inning, Smith’s home run on an 0-1 count tied the game.
Smith’s single gave Virginia its first lead in the fifth, and Towns added insurance in the seventh with an RBI single that gave the Cavaliers a two-run cushion for Waddell and Kirby.
Returning to this stage seemed unlikely for the Cavaliers. Entering its last ACC series of the season, Virginia wasn’t even guaranteed to make the ACC tournament, and missing that 10-team field likely would have meant missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in O’Connor’s 12-year tenure at Virginia. The Cavaliers swept North Carolina to earn a No. 7 seed in the conference tournament, then earned a No. 3 seed in an NCAA regional.
The draft hit last year’s team hard, so freshmen made up half the roster. Position players missed a combined 146 games because of injury. Kirby, the team’s ace going into the season, went down with a left back muscle strain April 17, leaving the team without a stable third starter.
But Virginia adopted a rallying cry of “a chip and a chair” – a poker phrase meaning you always have got a chance until you’re broke. They had gotten to this point, a winner-take-all Game 3 against Vanderbilt, playing with house money, the latest example coming in Game 2, when Virginia won thanks to a freshman pitcher who usually plays center field and a walk-on senior making his first start in the NCAA tournament and tallying three hits.
This year’s journey was different – and the result was different, too.