Virginia weathers storm, advances to CWS finals
OMAHA, Neb. -- Mother Nature may have intervened, but college baseball's most talented team wouldn't be denied a berth in the College World Series championship series.
In a game that started Friday night before lightning and rain forced its suspension in the top of the second inning, Virginia eliminated Mississippi with a 4-1 win Saturday afternoon. The Cavaliers (52-14) now will face the winner of Saturday night's Texas/Vanderbilt game in the best-of-three finals, which begin Monday.
Virginia entered the season ranked No. 1 by Baseball America, and it was the highest-ranked team (No. 8) and highest surviving national seed (No. 3) to advance to Omaha. The Cavaliers are playing for their first national championship in just their third trip to the CWS, having finished fifth in 2009 and third in '11.
"It's exciting," said senior right-hander Artie Lewicki, who was on Virginia's 2011 roster but didn't pitch in that CWS. "I'm definitely proud of UVA. It's a nice feeling, but at the same time, we've got to stay focused. There's still work to do."
The Cavaliers have arguably the deepest pitching staff in college baseball, and one of the deepest lineups as well. Their roster includes one 2014 first-round Draft pick (right-hander Nick Howard, Reds), two supplemental first-rounders (left fielder Derek Fisher, Astros; first baseman Mike Papi, Indians) and a likely 2015 first-rounder (sophomore left-hander Nathan Kirby).
"They were just tremendous in the two games we played them," said Rebels coach Mike Bianco, whose 48-21 club dropped a 2-1 decision to Virginia on a Papi walk-off double in the first round of the CWS. "They just make it very hard on you. Man, they're good. They can really pitch. They can really hit and defend. They run the bases. They're just an outstanding ballclub."
On Saturday, the Cavaliers demonstrated the depth of their talent as it wasn't their premium Draft picks who were at the forefront. Sophomore Robbie Coman, who batted ninth and is Virginia's second-string catcher, erased a 1-0 lead with a two-run single in the top of the fourth inning. Junior second baseman Branden Cogswell, a seventh-round choice by the Athletics, followed with a perfect bunt to plate a third run.
That was more than enough for a trio of Cavaliers pitchers who combined to allow six hits, five walks and a lone unearned run. Sophomore right-hander Josh Sborz, a projected early-round pick in the 2015 Draft, wasn't as sharp as he was when he threw seven shutout innings to beat Maryland in the Super Regional clincher. But after pitching the first inning Friday, he came back Saturday and stranded seven of the eight runners in the four additional frames he worked.
"Josh Sborz has been fantastic, and this is what it's all about," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "The guy's our No. 2 starter all year long. The coach makes a decision to switch things up going into the final ACC regular-season weekend and Josh doesn't start for three weeks, but he's not in the coach's office wondering what's going on.
"He's a total team guy. And when you carry yourself that way, I believe you get rewarded. And he was rewarded in Game 3 in the Super Regional against Maryland. He couldn't have pitched any better. And he deserved the opportunity that he had last night and today."
Sborz's 91-93-mph fastball and hard slider were enough to get him out of trouble, and once Lewicki and Howard entered the game, Mississippi never seriously challenged again. Lewicki, an eighth-round selection by the Tigers, retired nine of the 11 batters he faced with a 92-94 mph fastball and a mid-80s cutter/slider. Howard earned his Atlantic Coast Conference-record 20th save, hitting 96 mph with his heater and fanning sophomore pinch-hitter Holt Perdzock on an 84-mph slider to end it.
Lewicki extended his streak of NCAA postseason innings without allowing an earned run to 17 1/3. He shut out Bucknell for seven innings in the Regionals before moving to the bullpen and saving an elimination-game win against Maryland in the Super Regionals. Lewicki has appeared in all three of Virginia's CWS games, surrendering just one hit in seven innings.
Lewicki pitched just two innings in 2013, when he attempted to come back from Tommy John surgery too quickly. O'Connor lauded his unselfishness in accepting a relief role and performing well in it.
"Really, our plan was not for the entire tournament," O'Connor said. "It was OK, let's pitch Artie out of the 'pen in Game 1 and see where we're at. Artie Lewicki is a strike-thrower. He's got outstanding stuff. I'm sure the Tigers are very happy they selected him.
"Fortunately, it's worked out and he's appeared in all three games. All three games have been tight. And he's just stepped up for his ballclub in an important role."
Virginia 4, Mississippi 1 (Mississippi eliminated)
Texas vs. Vanderbilt, 8 p.m. ET (loser eliminated)
Texas/Vanderbilt winner vs. Virginia, 8 p.m. ET
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com and writes a blog, Callis' Corner. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter.