Top prospects set for action in CWS finals
Recent Draft picks highlight rosters as Vanderbilt, Virginia battle for national championship
OMAHA, Neb. -- For just the third time in 59 College World Series, the same two teams will play for the national championship in consecutive seasons. But this year's Vanderbilt vs. Virginia matchup has a much different feel than it did a year ago.
In 2014, the Cavaliers began the season ranked No. 1 and cruised for most of the year before winning eight of nine NCAA postseason games to reach the CWS finals. By contrast, Vanderbilt's pitchers slumped at season's end and the Commodores had to survive a 10-inning elimination game against Texas to reach the championship series. Virginia had a slightly superior and definitely more rested team, yet Vanderbilt pulled out two one-run victories in three games to claim its first national title.
This year, the Commodores were the preseason No. 1 team and have played their best baseball in the NCAA playoffs, allowing a total of just 11 runs in eight straight wins. The Cavaliers went just 18-18 in March and April and looked like they'd miss the NCAA postseason until they swept North Carolina in the final week of the regular season. Virginia has scored the go-ahead run in the sixth inning or later of each of its eight tournament wins, coming from behind six times.
The Commodores (50-19) appear to have the better team, are definitely less fatigued and have their pitching in better shape after the Cavaliers (42-23) had to beat Florida on Saturday to advance.
"It's going to be a tall order," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "The Vanderbilt club is talented, as you see. They're really, really good on the mound. And certainly we're going to have to be at our best."
Monday's finals opener will pit a 2015 first-round pick, Vanderbilt's Carson Fulmer (No. 8 overall to the White Sox), against a possible 2016 first-rounder, Virginia's Connor Jones. After that, the pitching matchups will strongly favor the Commodores, who have Dodgers third-rounder Philip Pfeifer for Tuesday's game and Dodgers first-rounder Walker Buehler for Wednesday's if-necessary contest. Pfeifer beat Texas Christian with seven shutout innings last Tuesday and Buehler was dominant while eliminating the Horned Frogs on Friday.
The Cavaliers' pitching plans for the second and third games are unclear. After straining the lat muscle behind his left (pitching) shoulder in mid-April, Brewers supplemental first-rounder Nathan Kirby made his first appearance in nine weeks on Friday but lasted just 2 2/3 innings in a loss to Florida. That necessitated Virginia using its best postseason starter, Pirates fifth-rounder Brandon Waddell, for five-plus innings on Saturday.
Vanderbilt also has an offensive advantage, averaging 6.8 runs per game to Virginia's 5.4. The Commodores have the 2015 Draft's No. 1 overall choice in shortstop Dansby Swanson -- who's 1-for-13 in Omaha after winning Most Outstanding Player honors here last June -- and an outfield with potential future first-rounders Jeren Kendall and Bryan Reynolds and Nationals third-rounder Rhett Wiseman. The Cavaliers' best position prospect, outfielder Joe McCarthy, has struggled after January back surgery and slipped to the Rays in the fifth round.
History is on Vanderbilt's side as well. In the first two championship rematches -- Southern California vs. Arizona State in 1972-73 and Oregon State vs. North Carolina in 2006-07 -- the same team (Trojans and Beavers) won both titles. The Commodores are seeking to become the Southeastern Conference's 10th title team in the last 25 Series, while the Cavaliers are trying to end a 60-year championship drought for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Vanderbilt also can become just the seventh school to repeat as national champion and the first since SEC rival South Carolina in 2010-11. That hasn't placed any extra pressure on the Commodores, however, as coach Tim Corbin said he didn't talk about returning to Omaha all year and Fulmer said the players have embraced the opportunity.
"More than anything, I think it just gave us more of a challenge," Fulmer said. "Obviously, every time we'd go out we'd get everybody's best. At the beginning of the year we knew that we were going to have that challenge, and we were just going to try to have fun with it."
The adversity that Virginia has had to overcome to reach the finals again has made for a more difficult but more satisfying season, third baseman Kenny Towns said. It also makes it foolish to underestimate the Cavaliers, even if they're the underdog this time around.
"I think we're a really tough team," said Towns, an Angels 20th-rounder who provided game-winning hits in the CWS opener against Arkansas and in the decisive game against Florida. "We're really resilient. We've done a good job of when teams put up some runs on us, we come back and return the favor and give ourselves a chance to win some games. We've been in a lot of tight ballgames and we just feel confident in those situations."
Virginia at Vanderbilt, 8 p.m. ET
Vanderbilt at Virginia, 8 p.m. ET
Virginia vs. Vanderbilt, 8 p.m. ET (if necessary)