Going into Game 3 of the 2014 College World Series Finals, the series tied at one game apiece, UVA coach Brian O’Connor knew how he wanted the game to go and how in his perfect world he wanted it to end.
However it was to be done, Josh Sborz, his starter, and Artie Lewicki, coming out of the pen, needed to give him seven innings. Then he could get the ball to closer Nick Howard, who hadn’t worked in a week, for the eighth and ninth to close out the championship.
The offense didn’t do what it had done in Games 1 and 2, getting just five hits after putting up a combined 25 in the first two games, and Sborz only gave Oak one inning, but Lewicki went six, the offense put a twospot up in the sixth, and heading into the eighth, it was a tie ballgame, and Howard’s to close out.
Sometimes you get what you want, and it doesn’t work out the way you wanted to, and Wednesday night was one of those times. Howard threw a 96-mph fastball to John Norwood, up and in, practically unhittable, except that Norwood got around on it, lacing a screaming liner down the left-field line with just enough lift to get over the fence for Vandy’s first homer of the College World Series and a 3-2 lead.
It was the only hit that Howard would surrender in his two innings of work. Other than that one pitch, he did his job. Which gets us to the bottom of the eighth. The heart of the order is due up, and does what it’s supposed to do. Mike Papi leads off with a single to left. Joe McCarthy walks on four pitches. Two on, none out, for Derek Fisher.
Fisher had struggled all postseason long, so it’s not a surprise that he is asked to bunt, and is successful in moving the runners to second and third, and almost beats the throw to first, but now there’s one out. Kenny Towns is next, and all he needs to do, with Vanderbilt playing up the middle in the infield willing to concede the run on a grounder, is basically put the ball in play, and the game is tied.
Commodores closer Adam Ravenelle loses a fastball, and it hits Townes, Ravenelle’s first hit batter of 2014. Bases loaded, one out, with John LaPrise and brandon downes due up. LaPrise grounds weakly back to Ravenelle, who has an easy 1-2-3 double play in the crosshairs, but is slow getting the ball home, and only gets the forceout there.
Two down. Downes can still bring the tying run home, but he will need to get a hit or walk. He gets neither, grounding to short to end the inning.
Howard gets out of the ninth with no damage, and UVA leads off with Robbie Coman, who started the two-run rally in the sixth with a leadoff single. He lines one into right that looks off the bat to be headed to the corner for extra bases, but right fielder Rhett Wiseman saves the game for Vandy, making a sliding catch for out number one.
Branden Cogswell strikes out on a slider in the dirt for out number two. It’s all up to Daniel Pinero, who drove in a run and scored a run in the sixth. It was not to be, Pinero going down swinging on a two-strike fastball.
If you’re Brian O’Connor, you got the game you wanted. Maybe he should have just started Lewicki, in retrospect, instead of going with Sborz at the outset, with Sborz having thrown 81 pitches in the Friday/Saturday win over Ole Miss that put Virginia into the Finals, and Lewicki having thrown just 36. Maybe he outsmarted himself a little there, trying to sneak a couple of innings out of Sborz, who was nowhere near sharp in the first, and was probably lucky to get out of that inning with just one run on the board.
Even with that blip, and the offense struggling to produce, it was 2-2 in the eighth, with the ball in the hands of maybe the most dominant closer in college baseball this year. Take that one pitch back in the top of the eighth, and get any kind of execution with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth, Howard is at the bottom of a dogpile a few minutes before midnight Eastern.
If Anthony Gill doesn’t sprain his ankle early in the second half in Madison Square Garden in the Sweet 16, maybe UVA goes to the Final Four.
If, if, if. These things happen.
Doesn’t make it any easier to process.
– Column by Chris Graham