OMAHA, Neb. -- When John Norwood stepped into the batter's box in the eighth inning on Wednesday night, in a deadlocked game that would decide the College World Series championship, Vanderbilt hadn't hit a home run since May 16. Just two players had gone deep during the previous 15 games at TD Ameritrade Park.
The best closer prospect in college baseball was on the mound for Virginia. Reds first-round pick Nick Howard had looked untouchable in his first two CWS outings, and his first pitch of the night registered at 97 mph. With one out, he sent another 97-mph fastball to Norwood, and the junior center fielder tomahawked it to left field. The ball carried into the Cavaliers' bullpen, giving the Commodores a 3-2 lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"You don't try to hit home runs like that," said Norwood, who went undrafted in June and was batting cleanup for the first time all season. "He throws hard, so you've got to hunt the fastball. He's going to throw it to you. I got out in front on one and just hit it out."
"The pitch was up in the zone, and he took an aggressive swing and hit the ball out," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "I said it the other night -- a lot of times in the history of this series, somebody has a defining moment, and Norwood stepped up, took a great swing and drove the ball out of the ballpark."
The victory gave Vanderbilt (51-21) just the second national title in school history -- its women's bowling team won the 2007 championship -- and the first for a men's program.
"It's a blessing to be able to make tradition and history for this university," said sophomore second baseman Dansby Swanson, named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player after batting .323 and tying Norwood for the CWS lead with 10 hits, five runs and four steals. "I couldn't be happier than to do it as part of this group of guys. This university has been looking for this for a long time."
It didn't come easy for the Commodores. Swanson led off the game with a single and scored on a throwing error by Cavaliers sophomore catcher Robbie Coman. Virginia pulled sophomore right-hander Josh Sborz after a shaky first inning, and senior righty Artie Lewicki held Vanderbilt scoreless until an unearned run in the sixth. Norwood reached on an infield hit, advanced to second on an errant throw by junior third baseman Kenny Towns and scored on another infield hit by junior shortstop Vince Conde.
With the way Commodores sophomore right-hander Carson Fulmer had pitched to that point, a two-run lead looked huge. The likely 2015 first-round pick had allowed just one infield hit and one walk through the first five innings, dealing 92-96-mph fastballs and getting strikeouts with his slider and changeup. His performance was all the more impressive considering that Virginia (53-16) had strafed Vanderbilt for 28 hits in the first two games of the CWS championship series.
The Cavaliers rallied in the bottom of the sixth, however, consistently squaring up Fulmer's pitches for the first time all night. Coman led off with a single, Swanson robbed junior second baseman Branden Cogswell of a hit with a diving play and Daniel Pinero drove in Coman with another single. When Fulmer walked junior first baseman Mike Papi, his night suddenly was over.
Freshman right-hander Hayden Stone, who won a CWS semifinal game with 5 2/3 innings of one-run relief against Texas, took over and hit sophomore right fielder Joe McCarthy to load the bases. Stone recovered to fan junior left fielder Derek Fisher on a nasty slider and appeared to get out of the inning when Towns smashed a ball to Conde. But Conde fumbled the ball, allowing Pinero to tie the score at 2.
Virginia left the bases loaded when Stone whiffed sophomore designated hitter John LaPrise on another slider, and they stranded three runners again in the bottom of the eighth. Papi singled, and McCarthy walked to chase Stone and bring on junior right-hander Adam Ravenelle. Fisher sacrificed the runners to second and third before Ravenelle hit Towns to load the bases.
But the latest in a series of unlikely CWS heroes for the Commodores wouldn't falter. Ravenelle induced groundouts from LaPrise and junior center fielder Brandon Downes, then retired the Cavaliers in order in the ninth. He struck out Pinero on an 86-mph slider to end it.
That gave Ravenelle his third career save -- all of which came in this CWS. He pitched just 22 innings in his first two seasons in Nashville, and in his last outing before Omaha, he gave up a walk-off homer in the second game of the Super Regionals.
"If you had asked me who would have closed out the College World Series, I would have told you anybody but me," said Ravenelle, a Tigers fourth-round pick in June. "They put me in that situation, and I just rolled with it. It was unbelievable when I let that last slider go. My whole body went numb."
The championship was a crowning achievement for Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin. The Commodores made just three NCAA tournament appearances in the first 56 years of the event before hiring Corbin before the 2003 season. Corbin has built them into a national power, making 10 tournament appearances in 12 years, but they reached the CWS just once, finishing third in 2011.
Throughout the CWS, Corbin repeatedly deflected praise and attention to his players and his university. But in the tunnel beneath TD Ameritrade Park an hour after the win, he finally took some personal pride in the championship.
"It's something I always wanted to be a part of," Corbin said. "I didn't think about being a coach who could win it. When I was a high school coach, I was always fascinated with the College World Series. I was a nerd who watched every move [Maine] coach [John] Winkin made.
"To be here and win it, it's magical in many ways. I just hope someone doesn't snap their fingers and say this dream isn't true."
Vanderbilt 9, Virginia 8
Virginia 7, Vanderbilt 2
Vanderbilt 3, Virginia 2