Connor Jones only went six innings, forcing UVA coach Brian O’Connor to go to Josh Sborz way, way early. Ryan Killian, who couldn’t get out of the sixth his past two starts, lasted into the eighth, handing the ball to Arkansas closer Zach Jackson, he of 87 strikeouts in 56.1 innings this year.
The Cavs were caught stealing three times and couldn’t get a single bunt down.
The script for Virginia to win the opener of the 2015 College World Series out the window, it was time for some improv.
UVA also stole five bases, three by shortstop Daniel Pinero, who had stolen six all season going into the game. His two steals in the eighth preceded the tie-breaking RBI double by Kenny Towns off Jackson, and a steal by pinch-runner Thomas Woodruff in the ninth put him in scoring position in advance of an RBI single by Matt Thaiss that provided an important insurance run in the Cavs’ 5-3 win over the Razorbacks on Saturday.
A microcosm of the 2015 season for Virginia, it started with a bang – a Joe McCarthy solo homer in the second – and then for the longest time looked like opportunity lost.
Jones, lights-out since mid-April, had trouble all day long finding the strike zone with any consistency, throwing 54 strikes among his 96 pitches, a key reason why he wasn’t able to get out of the sixth for the first time in eight starts.
But also characteristic of the 2015 UVA baseball season, Jones battled through his adversity, and left after six with the score tied at 3-3.
Enter Sborz, who is not your typical closer, despite his 14 saves in 2015. A weekend starter in 2014, the second-round 2015 MLB Draft pick took a perfect game into the seventh inning of his last start, an 11-0 complete-game one-hit win over Georgia Tech on May 19, so the thought of him having to close out the final three innings was no big deal.
And close it out he did, striking out five and allowing one hit in three scoreless innings.
Killian outpitched Jones, but Sborz outpitched fellow closer Jackson, who came into the game with a 1.91 ERA and the ton of Ks. Towns, in his at bat in the eighth, had to work his way back from being in a 1-2 hole, laying off two two-strike sliders that the entirety of the SEC had trouble staying away from this year, before getting a fastball on a 3-2 pitch that he was able to take down the line in right for the tie-breaking double that scored Pinero.
Clement, from the nine-hole, took a first-pitch fastball through the hole between short and third for the insurance RBI single, reprising his late-inning heroics from Game 2 of the Super Regional, when he laced the two-run single off Maryland closer Kevin Mooney that sent the ‘Hoos back to Omaha.
So a team that has 38 steals on the season swipes five bags. A team built on dominant starting pitching has to muddle through a rough outing from its #1. The big bopper in the middle of the lineup who missed the first two months of the season with back surgery and had one homer coming in hit a solo shot from the seven-hole.
A slew of two-out RBIs later, and this Virginia team that was left for dead a month ago is two wins away from the CWS Championship Series.
The script, long since flipped, is starting to look a bit much like something Disney would conjure up, but there’s still plenty to add to it before we get to the happy ending.
– Column by Chris Graham