For eight and a half of the nine innings of the opening game of the College World Series Finals, Virginia was a better baseball team than Vanderbilt. If you throw out the top of the third inning, the Cavaliers outscored the Commodores 8-0 and outhit them 15-3.
Unfortunately for Virginia, that half inning can't be thrown out. Vanderbilt plated all nine of their runs in the top of the third and held off a spirited Virginia rally to win, 9-8, pulling themselves to within one win of the national championship.
College World Series
College World Series
Down seven runs after the fateful top of the third, Virginia rallied back to pull within one in the bottom of the eighth. With a man on third and two outs, Virgina's Derek Fisher hammered what looked to be a game-tying hit through the middle, but Commodore second baseman Vince Conde ranged over and made the throw to first to keep Vandy on top.
Ace Virginia starter Nathan Kirby, who was named the ACC Co-Pitcher of the Year and had a 1.70 ERA entering the game, is going to be seeing the top of the third in his nightmares for a while. Having breezed through the first two frames, Kirby suddenly lost complete control of his pitches. He walked five of the first nine batters, including three consecutive, and all of sudden Vandy had charged to a 4-2 lead.
Kirby's collapse was so abrupt that the Virginia bullpen didn't have time to get ready. It was obvious by Kirby's fourth walk of the inning that he was done, but Cavs reliever Whit Mayberry was still hard tossing. Kirby was forced to stay in for two more excruciating at-bats, the last of which was a potential inning-ending double play ball that first baseman Mike Papi flat dropped.
"It looked like to me he was rushing a little bit, his arm was dragging behind," Virginia skipper Brian O'Connor said of his ace, who had allowed just 28 walks all season coming in. "He just couldn't get himself back together."
Even after Kirby was mercifully pulled, the onslaught continued. Vandy's Tyler Campbell, a backup third baseman playing for the suspended Xavier Turner, hammered his second double of the inning (yes inning, not game) to clear the bases and push the score out to 9-2.
Finally, a groundout to second ended the top of the third -- 31 minutes after it began.
To Virginia's credit, they refused to go away. They immediately mounted a two-out rally in the bottom of the third, stringing together four consecutive hits to plate three runs and cut the lead to 9-5.
Vandy starter Walker Buehler, who was penciled into the game instead of ace Tyler Beede just hours before first pitch, didn't fare all that much better than Kirby. He lasted only three innings, allowing five runs off eight hits. The Commodores have not had a single quality start from their rotation in five games in Omaha.
The Cavs pulled even closer with another two-out rally in the fifth. Brandon Downes hammered a two-out triple to right field, and Nate Irving followed it up with an RBI double to cut the deficit to three. Two batters later, Daniel Pinero singled to score Irving, making it 9-7.
Back-to-back singles led off the bottom of the eighth for Virginia and a sacrifice bunt put two men in scoring position with one out. Papi then smoked a pitch back up the middle, but the ball clipped just enough of the mound to keep it from going through. Vandy made the out at first, but the man on third scored to make it 9-8.
A batter later, Fisher's ground ball was corralled by Conde to preserve the lead.
Virginia, who already has two walkoff wins in Omaha, couldn't muster a third. Vandy's Adam Ravenelle worked a 1-2-3 ninth inning for the save.
The two teams meet again at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday for Game 2.