OMAHA, Neb. — Many preseason prognosticators believed Vanderbilt and Virginia had what it took to reach the College World Series finals again.
That the defending champion Commodores (50-19) returned is testament to their dominant pitching and the steady effort of a veteran group that got every opponent’s best shot.
That the Cavaliers (42-23) ended up here is nothing short of a surprise given all the obstacles they had to overcome along the way.
The best-of-three finals start Monday night at TD Ameritrade Park
“We’re proud of what we’ve done and certainly glad to be here,” Vandy coach Tim Corbin said Sunday.
Virginia knew its young players would have to develop rapidly for it to make a title run. Injuries to veterans complicated matters. Outfielder Joe McCarthy had back surgery in January, utilityman John LaPrise’s season ended after four games because of a hip injury and ace Nathan Kirby strained a back muscle in mid-April.
The Cavaliers were just 18-18 in March and April, finished 15-15 in ACC play and didn’t qualify for the 10-team league tournament until the last week of the regular season. They were given a No. 3 regional seed and had to go to the West Coast for the start of the NCAA tournament.
Senior Kenny Towns said his sense of accomplishment is greater than in 2014.
“What we’ve been through this year, the ups and downs of the season, it’s a little bit more satisfying,” he said.
Vanderbilt swept three games in bracket play and is 8-0 in the national tournament. The Commodores dropped six of eight in April but, since losing a series to Florida on May 9, they haven’t lost back-to-back games.
Bryan Reynolds and Rhett Wiseman have led the Commodores offensively through the postseason, and a pitching staff featuring first-round picks Carson Fulmer and Walker Buehler has a 1.33 ERA and an opponent batting average of .163 in the CWS.
Fulmer (13-2, 1.95 ERA), who will start against Virginia’s Connor Jones (7-2, 3.05) in Game 1, said the experience last year has helped during the current run.
“I think the biggest thing for anyone who comes here is to be comfortable,” Fulmer said. “With the people in the stands and the pressure that’s on the line, if you want to call it that, some people aren’t used to it. Just staying comfortable and knowing that you’re working with eight other guys, it’s big.”
Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said he hadn’t made pitching plans beyond Monday. Vanderbilt will start Philip Pfeifer on Tuesday and, if necessary, probably Buehler on Wednesday.
Dansby Swanson, the first pick in the draft, is 1-for-13 with five strikeouts and an error at shortstop in Vanderbilt’s three CWS games. Last year he was the CWS Most Outstanding Player after batting .323 with three doubles and four stolen bases.
Swanson, batting a team-leading .337 for the season, is at .242 with 11 strikeouts in eight NCAA tournament games. He said he hasn’t been distracted since the Arizona Diamondbacks selected him.
“It’s one of those things you can’t control, what’s going on outside of you anyway,” he said. “You just play your best and your hardest and hopefully the results will speak for themselves.”
Virginia will be trying to win the first national title in baseball for the ACC since Wake Forest in 1955.
The league has had lots of chances, with 91 teams appearing in the CWS. That’s the third-most behind the Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference.