Virginia started postseason play on a 1-3 kick that dropped them to a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and shipped them all the was across the country to the Lake Elsinore Regional. Since then, they've gone 8-1 en route to a berth in the College World Series championship and a rematch with last year's national champions.
Virginia and Vanderbilt were the two hottest teams in the country when the calendar flipped over to June, setting up a familiar scene in Omaha. The Commodores and Cavaliers battled through an all-time classic last season, capped by John Norwood's eighth inning home run that sealed a 3-2 Vandy victory and the school's first ever men's NCAA championship. Now, Virginia is back to settle the score.
So what will the underdogs bring to the College World Series finale? We turned to an expert to break it down.
Caroline Darney is an Editor over at Streaking the Lawn, SB Nation's Virginia Cavaliers hub. We teamed up last year to break down the College World Series championship, so round two was a given for this long-awaited rematch. I had questions about Connor Jones, Nathan Kirby, and more - and she had answers. Here's what she had to say about the Hoos.
1. Connor Jones will face a tough matchup on Monday when he squares off with SEC triple crown winner Carson Fulmer. What does the sophomore need to do to outduel the #8 pick in this year's MLB Draft?
Caroline Darney, StreakingtheLawn.com: Connor Jones will have to pitch the game of his life. Vanderbilt didn't see CJ last year as his dwindling performance kept him out of the rotation, but he's been very solid for the Hoos in a year that pitching has been... thin. He brings a season ERA of 3.02 into the game, and a 7-2 record. April 18th was Jones's coming out party as he pitched 7 and 2/3 innings against Miami in a series the Wahoos swept (and desperately needed). He fanned 11, and started the trend of the "Connor Camo".
In the post season he has pitched three games, averaging between 6 and 7 innings an outing with Josh Sborz finishing out the games. He's given up 10 runs with 10 strikeouts. His biggest challenge will be minimizing walks (he has 9 in the post season). The last thing Virginia needs to do is gift Vanderbilt opportunities (see game one last year).
2. Nathan Kirby returned to the mound last week after missing approximately two months with a lat strain, but was ineffective against the Gators. What went wrong with his return to CWS play, and do you think it was rust or a larger problem?
CD: I think Kirby's issues were part rust, part bad luck, and a HUGE part the danger of the Gator offense. The series against Miami that the Hoos swept back in April was the same that they lost Kirby... about 9 weeks ago. A couple well-placed hits by the Gators kept that inning alive, allowing them to go up big and force Kirby out of the game.
3. What crystallized this team in order to take them from a three-game losing streak in the ACC Tournament and a #3 seed in the Lake Elsinore Regional to a return trip to the College World Series championship?
CD: Joe McCarthy. He's only batting .206 on the season with 30 games under his belt due to his back injury and subsequent surgery, but his return has had dynamism to the lineup. He's still not full power, and has been seemingly 3/4 swinging on some shots, but he's hit a couple homerun balls and brings experience to the lineup. Having him in the 7 spot in the lineup adds a little something, and he's a great influence on some of the younger players.
4. Kenny Towns has been an RBI machine in the NCAA Tournament. Is he the Cavaliers' most dangerous hitter? Who do the Commodores need to be most wary of this week?
CD: Excellent question. Towns has been "Mr. June" for Virginia, with 27 RBI in 29 NCAA games in his career... a UVA record. BUT, he's not even the hottest hitter right now. Short stop Daniel Pinero leads the Hoos with a .571 batting average, and has three stolen bases in the CWS so far (9 for 11 on the season). The other hot bat is catcher Matt Thaiss, who leads the team with a .337 season average and 10 HR. It also helps that they go Pinero, Thaiss, Towns in the lineup...
5. Are Virginia fans excited at the chance for revenge in the CWS finale? Or, like most baseball fans, are you just ready to punch the VU fan that whistles all game?
CD: Can we say both? No, seriously Virginia fans are mostly stoked to be in this position after what a bizarre season it has been. I know personally each step past the Super Regional (because losing to Maryland was not an option) has been like bonus baseball because none of us could have expected this "team of destiny" like run. Coach O'Connor and his staff have been masterful with the elaborate game of chess they have played to get us here. Playing Vanderbilt adds a dash of rivalry to it, but I think Virginia fans are just hoping the pitching can hang in there long enough to give the bats a chance to come alive. Now that ya'll have your first NCAA Championship, we'd like our first in baseball. Oh, and maybe to slip the whistling fan a sedative.