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Fulmer puts Vandy one win from CWS title

Commodores starter shakes off illness to pitch 7 2/3 scoreless innings

OMAHA, Neb. -- The night before what was almost certainly the final start of his college career, Carson Fulmer had goosebumps. And not because he was excited about pitching in the opener of the College World Series finals.

"I had a fever late last night," Fulmer said. "I went to bed with the chills and put on a big jacket so I could sweat it out at night. When I woke up, I still didn't feel great but I definitely kept my mouth shut because I wanted to pitch. There was no way I wasn't going to pitch."

Fulmer made Virginia's bats look sick Monday night as the fifth CWS start of his career was by far his best. The junior right-hander pitched 7 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and six baserunners while striking out eight, as the Commodores won, 5-1, to move a win away from repeating as national champions. The Cavaliers will have to win Tuesday and Wednesday to avoid losing to Vanderbilt in the finals for the second straight year.

The eighth overall pick in the Draft by the White Sox, Fulmer improved to 14-2 with a 1.83 ERA with the victory. He leads NCAA Division I in wins and ranks second with 167 strikeouts in 127 2/3 innings. He worked with a 93-96 mph fastball for most of the evening and registered six of his whiffs with low-80s curveballs.

"I felt great once the adrenaline set in," Fulmer said. "It runs through your body and it kind of heals it up. Nothing was going to stop me from getting through this game. This is the reason I came to school."

Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin wasn't surprised that Fulmer's competitiveness carried the day.

"I've used Joe Frazier, the fighter, as an analogy because he keeps coming and he keeps throwing punches and he's just looking for your jaw, he's not trying to maneuver around you," Corbin said. "As a kid, we just haven't had many like him. ... He's a special, special competitor and he'll go down as one of the greatest pitchers ever to pitch at Vanderbilt, if not the best. I don't want to say 'the' because we've had some good ones, but I'll tell you what, he's a special guy."

The Cavaliers hit just seven balls out of the infield against Fulmer. They got two runners on base against him with one out in the third and fifth innings, only to see him snuff out both threats. They finally chased him with a two-out double and a walk in the eighth, but by then, the Commodores had a five-run lead that seemed insurmountable.

Virginia sophomore right-hander Connor Jones, a potential first-round pick in 2016, matched Fulmer zero for zero in the first five innings. But freshman third baseman Will Toffey hit a two-run, opposite-field double to open the scoring in the sixth, and junior shortstop Dansby Swanson's double off junior reliever Kevin Doherty was the key blow in a three-run seventh. The No. 1 overall choice in the Draft by the D-backs, Swanson had two hits after going 1-for-13 in his first three CWS games.

Swanson is one of Fulmer's roommates, and he said he got the pitcher some medication the previous night before finding somewhere else to sleep so he wouldn't become sick. Though Fulmer was ill, Swanson had no doubt he would come up huge.

"I expected nothing else today," Swanson said. "What he did not only shot his legacy through the roof, but his performance sets us up well for tomorrow."

Vanderbilt (51-19) not only has a one-game advantage in the best-of-three finals, but its pitching also is in much better shape than Virginia's (42-24). The Commodores have gone 9-0 in the NCAA posteason while allowing a total of just 12 runs. They'll send Dodgers third-rounder Philip Pfeifer to the mound Tuesday after he beat Texas Christian with seven shutout innings a week earlier, and they have Dodgers first-rounder Walker Buehler ready to start Wednesday if needed.

Virginia needed an extra game to reach the finals, putting more strain on an already-taxed staff, and coach Brian O'Connor acknowledged he wasn't sure who would be available to start Tuesday. Brewers supplemental first-rounder Nathan Kirby missed nine weeks after straining the lat muscle behind his left (pitching) shoulder in mid-April, then recorded just eight outs while losing to Florida in his first game back Friday. The Cavaliers had to use their best postseason starter, Pirates fifth-rounder Brandon Waddell, for five-plus innings to beat the Gators on Saturday.

It's unlikely that Virginia will be daunted by the prospect of having to beat Vanderbilt twice in the next two days. In danger of missing the NCAA tournament before sweeping North Carolina in the final week of the regular season, the Cavaliers have come from behind in six of their eight postseason victories.

"We've been in this situation before this year," O'Connor said. "Certainly we were in this situation going into Saturday against Florida, that if you win, you get to continue your season; if you don't, it's over. So this team has handled that kind of adversity all year long and I would imagine tomorrow night would be no different."

Monday's game
Vanderbilt 5, Virginia 1

Tuesday's game
Vanderbilt at Virginia, 8 p.m. ET

Wednesday's game
Virginia vs. Vanderbilt, 8 p.m. ET (if necessary)

Jim Callis is a reporter for and writes a blog, Callis' Corner. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter.