Tunkhannock graduate Mike Papi and the University of Virginia baseball team are one step closer to reaching their ultimate goal of winning a College World Series Championship.
But to capture their first NCAA baseball title in school history, the Cavaliers will be forced to do it the hard way after losing the best-of-three series opener to Vanderbilt on Monday night.
While the scoreboard paints a picture of a slugfest, the real story is a Virginia team that clawed its way back to win the game, and one inning that the Cavs would certainly like to have back.
The Cavaliers (52-15) took a two-run lead in the first inning, a great cushion for Virginia’s solid pitching staff.
But the game unravelled in the third.
Vanderbilt sent 13 batters to the plate, scoring nine runs on just three hits. Three scored on bases-loaded walks and another on a fielding error.
Virginia slowly worked its way back into the game, scoring three runs in the third.
The Cavs had already added two runs in the fifth when Papi stepped to the plate as the go-ahead run with runners on first and second and two outs.
With a 2-0 count, Papi crushed a fastball to the alley in right-center field, around the same spot he had already hit a game-winning double against Ole Miss on June 15.
Off the bat, it looked like the ‘Hoos would take a one-run lead, but TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha has been unkind to hitters, and Vanderbilt secured the out in front of the wall, about 380 feet from home plate.
“I knew I hit it well,” Papi said in an interview with VirginiaSports.com after the game. “Obviously, not well enough. I hit it to the wrong part of the park. It’s pretty deep out there.”
In the eighth, Papi came to bat again with runners on first and second, this time with no outs. He laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt down the third base line to advance the runners, one that later scored on a Joe McCarthy fielder’s choice, pulling the Cavs to within 9-8.
However, the second runner was stranded, and the Cavs’ epic comeback came up short in a CWS game that had the most runs ever at the park.
Papi finished the game 0 for 4 with a strikeout and stranded five runners on base.
To get to the finals, Virginia outlasted TCU in 15 innings, 3-2, on Tuesday, June 17, in one of the longest games in CWS history (4:51).
Papi had an RBI groundout in the fifth to tie the game at 2-2. From there, it was a pitching duel, as both teams were limited to just four hits in 10 innings.
In the 9th, Papi led off with a chance to start a rally, but a bid for a double was dashed with a diving catch in centerfield. He finished 1-5 with a walk.
TCU pitchers retired every Virginia hitter before ‘Hoos catcher Nate Irving doubled in the 15th and a sacrifice fly scored the winning run.
The Cavs would again have to beat Ole Miss to advance to the finals, but a lightning storm suspended the game to Saturday.
When play resumed, the Cavs used a three-run fourth to take an early lead, and all but cruised to a 4-1 win.
Papi finished the game with a hit and a walk and made a highlight-reel defensive play in the fifth when he reached into the stands down the first base line to secure an out.
Virginia’s dominating pitching will need to return to have a shot at the title, but as of Monday, the Cavs seemed confident in their chances.
“All year after losses we’ve bounced back,” Papi said in the same interview. “We’d like to think of it more as a learning experience for us and try to take something from it instead of kind of dwelling on it, because the past is the past and you can’t go back. But we definitely showed a lot of heart today in trying to win each frame and going out there and scratch some more runs off.”
Because of deadline, Tuesday night’s game result were unavailable. If the Cavaliers won game two, Virginia will play tonight in the championship finale at 8 p.m. on ESPN.