OMAHA, Neb. -- Virginia sophomore left-hander Nathan Kirby could be the first college pitcher drafted in 2015, and he looked like it early Monday night in the opener of the College World Series championship series. His command wasn't pinpoint, but he retired the first seven Vanderbilt batters he faced, three on swinging strikeouts against his hard slider.
But suddenly, what has been the lowest-scoring CWS ever took a shocking turn. The next seven Commodores reached base against Kirby even though only one of them hit the ball out of the infield, driving him from the game. By the time the third inning ended, Vanderbilt had plated nine runs on three hits, five walks and an error.
That outburst -- the biggest half-inning ever at pitcher-friendly TD Ameritrade Park since it opened in 2011 -- gave the Commodores a seven-run lead. Though the Cavaliers would chip away with three runs in the bottom of the third, two more in the fifth and one in the eighth, Vanderbilt (50-20) held on for a 9-8 victory.
The Commodores need a win either Tuesday or Wednesday to capture their first national championship, while Virginia (52-15) must take both games to earn its first CWS title.
"We're fortunate to win that game, for sure," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. "No one could have scripted that particular game, and if anyone said they could, they're lying. I don't think you could have called a nine-run inning."
For the second straight game, sophomore third baseman Tyler Campbell was the unlikely offensive hero for the Commodores. He had made just one start and got just 15 at-bats before arriving in Omaha, but he was pressed into the starting lineup Friday after regular third baseman Xavier Turner was ruled ineligible for an unspecified NCAA rules violation. Campbell had two hits in that game, then had a walk-off infield single in the 10th inning Saturday to send Vanderbilt to the championship series.
After Kirby walked freshman catcher Jason Delay to give the Commodores their first baserunner, Campbell followed with their first hit, a double to the left-field wall. He came up again in the third with the bases loaded and cleared them against senior right-hander Whit Mayberry, grounding another two-bagger inside the third-base line to double his season RBI total from three to six.
"Against Texas the other night with the walk-off, I didn't feel I had a great game, but I think that actually helped me just to stay with my approach and try to hit balls hard on the ground," said Campbell, who's now 5-for-12 (.417) with four RBIs in Omaha. "I feel good. I feel like I'm seeing pitches well and that's the best deal."
Both Virginia coach Brian O'Connor and Kirby agreed that the lefty had difficulty maintaining his release point and controlling his pitches. The Cavaliers entered the game with the lowest ERA in NCAA Division I (2.21) and hadn't allowed an earned run in their last 24 innings before the third.
O'Connor also praised Campbell for coming through when Vanderbilt needed him most.
"It seems that every year that there is somebody who rises up in certain moments that maybe people didn't expect," O'Connor said. "We didn't pitch him differently than anybody else. ... You have to credit the young man. He's been thrust in there on the biggest stage in college baseball, and he's performed."
The Commodores also started a likely 2015 first-round Draft pick on the mound, and sophomore right-hander Walker Buehler also struggled. Though he showed a 93-96-mph fastball and flashed quality secondary pitches, the Cavaliers repeatedly barreled balls against him. Buehler left after surrendering eight hits and five runs in three innings.
Virginia tagged junior lefty Jared Miller for five hits and two runs in the next two innings, closing the gap to 9-7 and setting the stage for another improbable hero. Vanderbilt freshman left-hander John Kilichowski hadn't appeared in a game since May 17, but he retired the first six batters he faced and allowed just one run in three innings before junior Adam Ravenelle earned his second CWS save with a perfect ninth.
"In order for us to win that game, we had to pass the baton from a pitching standpoint and we did," Corbin said. "We got a great outing from a freshman tonight. We talked as a group today about trying to get a Tyler Campbell from the pitching staff who hasn't been there yet who could pick us up, and Johnny certainly did that. He prepared himself well for this moment today."
Kilichowski escaped a jam in the eighth thanks to some stellar defense from junior shortstop Vince Conde. With runners on second and third base and one out, Cavaliers sophomore right fielder Joe McCarthy smashed a grounder back up the middle. Kilichowski stabbed at the ball and deflected it with his left foot, and Conde was able to change direction, field it and throw McCarthy out.
Junior left fielder Derek Fisher followed with another hard shot up the middle. This one missed Kilichowksi but not Conde, who grabbed it behind second base and threw out Fisher on a bang-bang play.
"Whenever the ball hits the ground, it's almost like I take a sigh of relief no matter where it is in the infield because of how good these guys are at getting to balls that are not right at them," Kilichowski said. "... The one that I kicked, the ball took a giant hop and Vinny had to readjust himself to make that play. The ball had a weird topspin to it because that's not natural off the cleat. The fact that he can make those plays is huge."
Vanderbilt will try to clinch the CWS championship Tuesday with junior right-hander Tyler Beede on the mound. A two-time first-rounder who was drafted 14th overall by the Giants in June, Beede can reach 97 mph and features three above-average pitches when he's at his best. Virginia will counter with sophomore lefty Brandon Waddell, a projected 2015 early-rounder with fine command.
Vanderbilt 9, Virginia 8
Vanderbilt vs. Virginia, 8 p.m. ET
Vanderbilt vs. Virginia, 8 p.m. ET (if necessary)