The Cavaliers were in danger of not making the NCAA tournament until they swept North Carolina on the final weekend of the regular season. After Adam Haseley, Ernie Clement and Thomas Woodruff led them to a 3-0 defeat of Vanderbilt on Tuesday night in the second game of the College World Series finals, they'll play one more game against the Commodores to decide the national championship on Wednesday.
Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said his team's latest victory epitomized its playoff ride from a No. 3 regional seed -- which meant that the NCAA did not consider it one of the 32 best clubs in the nation -- to within one game of its first CWS title. The Cavaliers (43-24) have survived two elimination games in Omaha, come from behind in six of their nine postseason victories and scored the decisive run in the sixth inning or later in each of those nine wins. Vanderbilt (51-20) sustained its first loss in 10 NCAA playoff games this year.
"I'm a big believer that to be in this position to compete for a national championship, you need guys to rise to the occasion that maybe hadn't yet or what people didn't expect," O'Connor said. "I think if you go back and look at the history of this event, there have been players that have emerged and gotten big hits or pitched quality innings for their team. And tonight was certainly a case of that."
After losing, 5-1, to the Commodores on Monday night, Virginia had a tired pitching staff and no obvious option for a Tuesday starter. O'Connor handed the ball to Haseley, a freshman left-hander who hadn't pitched in a month and normally is the Cavaliers' center fielder.
"I was shocked at first," said Haseley, who became the second player in CWS history to start on the mound and bat leadoff, joining Clemson's Bailey Hendley (June 15, 1958). "Then I was nervous the rest of the day. In the first inning, I was still a little nervous, but I felt like I settled down after that."
Haseley wasn't overpowering, but he was effective with an 85-88 mph fastball and a 75-78 mph curve. He went a career-high five-plus innings, giving up seven baserunners and striking out just one but keeping the Commodores off the scoreboard. He departed after surrendering a leadoff single in the sixth.
Coming off seven shutout innings against Texas Christian last Tuesday, Vanderbilt junior left-hander Philip Pfeifer put up five straight zeros to match Haseley. But after recording two quick outs in the bottom of the sixth, the Dodgers' third-round pick was undone by a bad bounce, an error and the bottom of Virginia's lineup.
Freshman first baseman Pavin Smith started the game's lone scoring rally with an opposite-field single. Junior left fielder Kevin Doherty hit a bouncer that went off Pfeifer's glove but still looked destined to be a groundout until it struck second base and popped up in the air. Junior center fielder Joe McCarthy followed with a grounder that should have been the final out, but first baseman Zander Wiel booted it to load the bases.
That brought up freshman second baseman Clement, who batted .240 and drove in just 21 runs in his first 60 games this year. He lined a single into left field for the first run of contest, bringing up Woodruff.
Because Haseley began the game on the mound, he doubled as a DH. O'Connor inserted Woodruff in right field, giving the senior just the 13th start of his college career and his first at-bats since May 16. He scored the winning run as pinch-runner in two walk-off victories at the 2014 CWS but never had swung a bat in Omaha.
Hitting just .235 in 51 at-bats entering the game, Woodruff singled his first two times up against Pfeifer. He came through again in his third, lining a 2-2 pitch up the middle for a two-run single.
"It was definitely new," said Woodruff, who earned the NCAA's Elite 89 as the top academic performer at the CWS after graduating with a 3.725 GPA and a degree in mechanical engineering. "I honestly didn't feel as nervous as I expected to. I was kind or relaxed, just trying to enjoy it."
After three improbable players staked Virginia to the 3-0 lead, a familiar star closed it out. Three days after throwing 54 pitches in four innings to beat Florida in the semifinals, junior right-hander Josh Sborz gutted through 77 pitches in four more innings to preserve the shutout. Vanderbilt's best chance came when its first two hitters reached in the ninth, but Sborz struck out two of the final three batters and ended the game by throwing a 92-mph fastball past sophomore second baseman Nolan Rogers.
A supplemental second-round pick by the Dodgers, Sborz has allowed just one unearned run in 19 postseason innings while earning four wins and three saves. He has tied a CWS record with three victories this year and also saved Virginia's other win in Omaha.
"Every time we've asked this guy to pitch a big ballgame for us ... he has taken his game to a different level," O'Connor said. "And you can see how talented he is and he's just a model of consistency. And in order to have a chance to win this thing, you need somebody like that to really step up and he's done the job all year. Certainly during these two weeks, he's been really exceptional."
Wednesday's pitching starters will be a pair of junior selected early in the 2015 Draft. Vanderbilt will go with right-handed Walker Buehler, a Dodgers first-rounder who allowed just one run and struck out eight in 6 2/3 innings while eliminating Texas Christian on Friday. Virginia will counter with Pirates fifth-rounder lefty Brandon Waddell, who beat Florida with seven shutout innings two Saturdays ago and had a five-inning no decision against the Gators last Saturday.
Vanderbilt 5, Virginia 1
Virginia 3, Vanderbilt 0
Virginia at Vanderbilt, 8 p.m. ET
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com and writes a blog, Callis' Corner. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.