The 2015 Virginia Baseball season played out like something straight out of a movie script, except way better than anything Hollywood has churned out in several years.
It had everything. Drama. Heartbreak. Heroes. Villains. Comebacks. Victory. Confetti. Dogpiles.
The Early Struggles
Virginia's season got off to a weird start. That's the best way to put it. Just weird. First up, the Hoos lost preseason All-American outfielder Joe McCarthy with a back injury that would sideline him until April. John LaPrise, the Cavalier with the best returning batting average, was announced out for the season with a hip injury.
The Cavaliers' first home game? March 11th, almost a month into the season. Snow hitting the Charlottesville area forced the Hoos on the road, playing "home" games at various stadiums in Charleston and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. That first home game didn't go very well on top of that. In-commonwealth foe Old Dominion came to Davenport and thumped Virginia 14-5.
Despite the injuries and a couple losses, the Hoos were the top-ranked team in the nation when they traveled to Virginia Tech March 13-15th.
Things did not go well.
On top of getting swept by the Hokies, Head Coach Brian O'Connor was suspended four games for an uncharacteristic outburst that led to him making unintentional contact with the home umpire.
Virginia continued to struggle in ACC play, finding themselves with a 7-11 record midway through the season after dropping two games to Georgia Tech. Things were looking a little dicey for the then No.16 ranked team.
April 15th, the Virginia team - and the fans - were treated to the return of Joe McCarthy. The slugger went 2-for-3 in his first game back, a 3-2 victory over William and Mary. The Cavaliers then nabbed a crucial series win over No.9 Miami to keep momentum in their favor. Second year Connor Jones pitched his best game as a Cavalier (to that point) to clinch the series for the Hoos as he dealt 11 strike outs and allowed just one earned run over 7 and 2/3 innings of work.
The win over Miami was huge for the Hoos, but it was accompanied with a rough blow as starting pitcher Nathan Kirby went out with a left lat strain, which would sideline him for 6-8 weeks.
April turned to May and the Cavaliers stood with a 30-19 (12-15 ACC) record as a trip to Chapel Hill to face North Carolina with a spot in the ACC tournament on the line. If Virginia failed to make their conference tournament, their 11 year streak of making the NCAA tournament could be at risk.
The Hoos swept the Heels, securing the No.7 seed in the ACC tournament and breathing new life into their post season hopes, even though their outing in the ACC tournament wasn't particularly breathtaking. Virginia dominated Georgia Tech 11-0 in the first game, then proceeded to get pummeled in their next three games. Brian O'Connor and the Hoos could only wait for their fate.
As the No.3 seed in the Lake Elsinore, California NCAA Regional, Virginia flew west to take on the University of Southern California, San Diego State University, and host UC Santa Barbara. Right out of the gate, the Hoos got a big win over the Trojans, 6-1. A 3-1 victory over SDSU put the Cavaliers in the regional title game in a rematch with USC. A fittingly wacky championship game saw the Hoos defeat the Trojans 14-10 in 11 innings, locking up an improbable Super Regional appearance. USC was up on Virginia 9-5 after the fifth inning, but one run in the sixth and three in the eighth inning knotted the score at nine all, forcing the extra innings.
A five run top of the 11th inning gave Virginia the lead they'd hold on to, ending the game at 1:18 am (4:18 am ET).
Fate would have it that top-seeded UCLA lost their regional to our old pals, Maryland, setting up a repeat of 2014's Super Regional between the Terps and the Cavaliers at Davenport Field.
Tickets for the Super Regional sold out almost immediately, setting the stage for a dramatic matchup between the two teams.
In Game 1, the Terps got out to a 3-0 lead before Virginia used a five run eighth inning - capped by a base-clearing double by eight hole hitter Kevin Doherty - to win 5-3. The three runs given up (on K-Doh's double) by Maryland's Kevin Mooney led to the closer's first loss and blown save of the season.
Game 2 was even more exciting. Virginia trailed 4-2 going into the ninth inning (seriously, the drama). Pavin Smith walked. Robbie Coman single. Joe McCarthy walk. Bases loaded.
Maryland inexplicably went back to Kevin Mooney who had blown the save (again, his first of the season) the day before with a trip to Omaha on the line. Mooney started off walking Doherty, bringing the score to 4-3. Nine hole hitter Ernie Clement stepped to the plate and promptly lace a shot down the left field line, scoring two runs to give the Hoos a 5-3 walk off win and left Clement with a cut on his forehead at the bottom of a jubilant dogpile.
Back in Omaha, the Cavaliers kept rolling. A 5-3 win over Arkansas pitted Virginia against a tough Florida team, the No.4 national seed, that had won ten straight. A tight 1-0 victory pushed the Hoos to the crucial winners bracket, waiting for their next opponent. Another matchup with Florida led to a rough loss, and a second game to decide who went to the College World Series Finals against the favorite, Vanderbilt. Mr. June, Kenny Towns, broke a 4-4 tie in the seventh inning with a sacrifice fly, giving the Hoos enough to win and force the rematch of the 2014 CWS Finals.
Ah, the finals.
Vanderbilt was the clear favorite in the finals, much as Virginia had been in 2014. The Commodores easily took Game 1, setting up two back to back "must-win" situations for the plucky Cavaliers. Due to rotational issues, the Hoos were forced to start center fielder Adam Haseley at pitcher, a first year who hadn't started on the mound since April 16th. Due to Haseley's move to the mound, McCarthy moved to center field, bringing senior walk-on Thomas Woodruff into right field. Haseley and closer Josh Sborz (more on him in a minute) combined for a seven hit shutout, only the second shutout recorded against Vanderbilt all season. Woodruff made the most of his start, going 3-for-4 from the plate with two RBIs to propel the Hoos to the winner-take-all final game.
After getting in an early 2-0 hole in the first inning, Virginia's Brandon Waddell settled in and held the Commodores scoreless the rest of the game and sat down the last 11 batters he faced. First year Pavin Smith knotted the game at two all in the top of the fourth inning, and fourth year Towns made an incredible diving stop on the third base line in the bottom of the inning to preserve the tie. Virginia got the winning run in the fifth inning after Smith hit a two-out single to score Haseley, who would eventually score the insurance run in the seventh inning off of a Towns two-out single.
In a story of redemption, Nathan Kirby - who got lit up by Vanderbilt in his only appearance in the CWS Finals in 2014 - took the mound in the eighth inning to close out the victory. Kirby struck out five batters over the two innings, including fanning Kyle Smith for the final out to kick off the celebrations.
CWS Most Outstanding Player went to Josh Sborz for his unreal 13 scoreless innings of work. Sborz was a complete animal, dominating everyone he faced from the Regional through to the CWS Finals. The pitching staff, including Waddell, Jones, Haseley, Kirby, and Sborz, was fantastic. They found ways to win in the most improbable of situations.
In the field, Coach O'Connor got production from all over the diamond. Clement, Woodruff, and Doherty, who all lived at the bottom of the lineup, each came up with monumental hits to keep their team winning. Experienced players like Daniel Pinero and Kenny Towns anchored the team on both sides of the ball. Underclassmen like Matt Thaiss and Pavin Smith delivered in the clutch.
You couldn't have come up with a better story than what unfolded on the field for the Virginia Baseball team in 2015. I can't wait to see what 2016 holds.