Two teams left to fight for the title
Virginia, Vanderbilt will play a best-of-three series for the national championship
OMAHA, Neb. -- The College World Series championship series is set. Virginia will play Vanderbilt, starting Monday night at 8 ET on ESPN, with both programs in search of their first championship.
When the skies parted on Saturday after storms suspended the Bracket 1 championship Friday, Virginia beat Ole Miss 4-1 to prevent baseball on Sunday at TD Ameritrade Park.
The Cavaliers got a solid outing from Josh Sborz, who came back from a start Friday to pitch through the fifth inning, and dominant relief by Artie Lewicki and Nick Howard. Catcher Robbie Coman delivered a two-run single in the fourth to fuel the offense.
Vanderbilt beat Texas 4-3 on Saturday night in dramatic fashion, forging a two-out rally to load the bases against John Curtiss in the bottom of the 10th.
Sophomore Tyler Campbell, a replacement for suspended third baseman Xavier Turner making his third start of the year, beat out a single on the infield as Rhett Wiseman scored the winning run from third.
Here's a look at the best-of-three championship series.
How they got here: The pre-tournament-favorite Cavaliers beat Ole Miss in the marquee game of the opening round on Mike Papi's two-out, walk-off double. Virginia then outlasted TCU in 15 innings, winning on Daniel Pinero's sacrifice fly. The third victory on Saturday followed the same formula, only without the late drama. Hitting .239 in Omaha, the Cavs are unbeaten largely because of their work on the mound. They're holding opponents to a .147 average and have allowed two earned runs in three games.
Key player: Second baseman Branden Cogswell is 4-for-10 at the CWS with a pair of runs scored and two doubles. The junior from Ballston Lake, New York, is hitting .306 (11-for-36) in the postseason. He sets the table for Virginia's big sticks. Cogswell kept the Cavs' offense afloat against TCU in perhaps the biggest momentum-altering game of the tournament.
Wild card: Senior right-hander Lewicki started on the mound in eight of 10 appearances before the NCAA postseason. Since, he's made four relief appearances in five outings and hasn't allowed an earned run in 17 1/3 innings. In the CWS, he's surrendered just one hit in seven innings and earned wins in the Cavs' first two games. He then threw three innings on Saturday, again providing the bridge to overpowering closer Howard.
Three reasons Virginia will win:
• Nathan Kirby is ready. The availability of the sophomore lefty gives Virginia a sizable edge on Monday over Vanderbilt, which used ace Carson Fulmer on Saturday. Kirby (9-2, 1.70 ERA) fired seven innings of one-hit ball against Ole Miss in the tournament opener. Their ace is dominant when he's on, and Kirby is usually on, averaging nearly a strikeout per inning over the season. Since the introduction of championship-series format, the team to win Game 1 has claimed the title in nine of 11 years.
• It's their time. The Cavaliers have climbed the ladder methodically in 11 years under coach Brian O'Connor, a native of the Omaha area and Creighton grad who played in this event in 1991. Virginia lost in NCAA regionals every year from 2004 to 2008, then advanced to the College World Series in 2009 and 2011. This is O'Connor's first shot to play for the crown, and his team has handled the pressures of Omaha like a group coached by a CWS veteran.
• They're the best team. Any questions? The Cavaliers started the year as a popular choice to win it all, and they've experienced few dips. Virginia only once lost consecutive games. It has power that demands respect with first baseman Mike Papi and outfielders Joe McCarthy and Brandon Downes. It has first-round talent in Howard, Papi and left fielder Derek Fisher. And it has plenty of pitching, led by Kirby and fellow lefty Brandon Waddell, likely to start on Tuesday.
How they got here: The Commodores beat Louisville 5-3 on opening night and topped UC Irvine 6-4 behind 5 1/3 hitless innings of relief by Walker Buehler. Then came Texas. The Longhorns silenced Vanderbilt 4-0 on Friday afternoon, setting the stage for Saturday night. The game was tied after the sixth inning until there were two outs in the bottom of the 10th. At that point, Wiseman singled, Ro Coleman drew a walk, Karl Ellison was hit by a pitch and Campbell pounded a 1-1 offering into the ground toward UT shortstop C.J. Hinojosa. Campbell beat the throw by a step to ignite a celebration in right field.
Key player: Freshman left fielder Bryan Reynolds continues to shine in Omaha. He's made an array of impressive catches and collected six hits in four games for the Commodores. Reynolds, batting second, helps pace the Vandy offense with leadoff man Dansby Swanson. Reynolds has hit safely in 17 of the past 18 games, hitting .431 (31-for-72) over that time. He leads the Commodores in hitting at .341 and with 53 RBIs.
Wild card: Buehler, the sophomore right-hander, might be just the man to match Kirby on Monday. After Buehler's performance against UC Irvine, he won't lack confidence. He's 2-0 in the postseason and leads the Commodores with 12 wins this year. Buehler started 15 games in 18 appearances. He's fanned 109 in 99 1/3 innings, and he'll have had a full week of rest by Monday night.
Three reasons Vanderbilt will win:
• It creates havoc on the basepaths. The 10th-inning rally against Texas was no fluke. The Commodores apply constant pressure. They stole four more bases on Saturday to reach 12 in four CWS games. Virginia has controlled the running game all year, erasing 21 of 43 steal attempts, including 3 of 5 in Omaha. But Vanderbilt offers a new kind of challenge, with six regulars -- not including Turner -- who have stolen more than 10 bases this season.
• Pitching depth and more depth. Who needs pitching depth in Omaha, where the off days are plentiful? Teams that expect to win championships need it. Vandy, despite using Fulmer for 4 1/3 innings on Saturday, enters the championship series in good shape on the mound. Consider that Hayden Stone, who fired 5 2/3 innings of solid relief on Saturday, worked just 1 1/3 innings in Vandy's first three games. Talented arms Tyler Ferguson and Tyler Beede are ready. Adam Ravanelle hasn't pitched since the opening game. Even Fulmer could likely return if a third game is needed on Wednesday.
• It plays in the Southeastern Conference. In search of its first NCAA crown in any men's sport, Vanderbilt is the sixth SEC school to play for the baseball title in the past seven years. The league won three straight before Arizona beat South Carolina in 2012, and Mississippi State fell to UCLA last year. That's no downturn, especially when stacked against the Atlantic Coast Conference. Virginia is attempting to win the first national title by ACC school since Wake Forest in 1955.
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