The temptation is to call a national championship inevitable for Virginia baseball. The Cavaliers were too close this season, and they've been too exceptional for too long under coach Brian O'Connor.
So it's just a matter of time, right? Just a matter of time before O'Connor, rooted to the College World Series like few others, celebrates with his players in Omaha, Neb.
Well, maybe. Sports, especially baseball, often are fickle and cruel, as Virginia faithful learned anew Wednesday when U.Va. lost a stirring and excruciating title game to Vanderbilt, 3-2.
The Cavaliers and Commodores spilt the first two clashes in this best-of-three championship series, and given each team's pitching depth, a tense rubber match seemed all but certain. Sure enough …
Playing from behind for the third consecutive evening, and handcuffed by Vanderbilt's Carson Fulmer for the first five innings, Virginia scored twice in the bottom of the sixth to knot the score. Next run wins. You just knew it. Reliever Hayden Stone was throwing seeds for the Commodores, Artie Lewicki for the Cavaliers.
Extra innings, anyone? A marathon approaching Virginia's 15-inning slog with Texas Christian earlier in this CWS? Bleary eyes at work Thursday?
After six stout innings and 97 pitches from Lewicki, O'Connor turned to closer Nick Howard to start the eighth. Any why not? He'd been untouchable throughout the NCAA tournament, and as he'd shown against TCU, was capable of extended innings.
But the first batter Howard faced, center fielder John Norwood, crushed a 97 mph fastball far beyond the left-field fence. Remarkably, it was Vanderbilt's first home run since May 16, a stretch of 16 games that dated to the regular season.
Virginia was poised to equalize, or seize the lead, when Mike Papi and Joe McCarthy reached to start the bottom of the eighth. Adhering to the conservative approach that usually serves the Cavaliers well but bit them in the Game 1 loss to Vanderbilt, O'Connor sacrificed Derek Fisher, the 37th pick of this month's Major League draft but below the Mendoza line for his career in postseason, to advance the runners to second and third.
When reliever Adam Ravenelle plunked Kenny Towns, the bases were loaded. But John La Prise and Brandon Downes grounded into fielder's choices to derail the threat, and the Cavaliers went quietly in the ninth.
"I think it's human nature as a player or as a coach to … reflect back and look at what could have happened," O'Connor said during his postgame news conference. "But if we did that all the time, and we did that in our personal lives, I think we'd drive ourselves crazy. We had opportunities, and it just didn't happen for us. … It wasn't for a lack of want to or effort or the right approach or anything. Just really, the credit goes to Vanderbilt."
To Virginia, as well. The Cavaliers (53-16) began the season atop the national polls and rarely dissuaded the notion. Playing in their 11th NCAA tournament in as many years under O'Connor, they reached their third College World Series and advanced to their first finals.
That sustained excellence shows no signs of waning. Wednesday marked the farewells of talents such as Howard, Lewicki, Papi and Fisher, but plenty remain — Nathan Kirby, Brandon Waddell, Josh Sborz, Connor Jones, Daniel Pinero, Robbie Coman and McCarthy to name a few.
"We had a special season, and it's unfortunate how it ended," O'Connor said. "But we played a great ballgame, and the competition was good. The University of Virginia baseball program will be back here in Omaha at some point, and maybe the next time we can win it all."
An Omaha native, O'Connor grew up attending the CWS. He's competed in the event as a Creighton pitcher, Notre Dame assistant coach and Virginia coach. He understands all too well how difficult the event is to win.
On the off chance he ever forgets, he need only look at his ACC colleagues. Florida State's Mike Martin (15), North Carolina's Mike Fox (six) and Clemson's Jack Leggett (six) have guided their teams to Omaha 27 times combined, with nary a trophy among them.
That's part of a baffling streak that has seen 43 ACC teams leave Omaha empty since Wake Forest's 1955 championship.
"Obviously, (the Cavaliers) were good enough to be the national champion, but it just didn't fall that way, unfortunately," ACC commissioner John Swofford said. "We've had too many of those over the years. It's really kind of remarkable. I have to think that at some point it turns in our direction."
Brian Boland, O'Connor's friend, neighbor and co-worker, also has a keen appreciation for postseason's perils. Before winning the 2013 national championship, his Virginia men's tennis team had reached the NCAA quarterfinals eight straight years. The Cavaliers had lost in the final the previous two seasons.
Whether O'Connor's program can match Boland's and climb that final step to the pinnacle is unknown. But there's no questioning the fuel Wednesday's disappointment creates.
"It's something you want to learn from," McCarthy said, "and really let it motivate you, to make yourself better and maybe come back next year and make sure something like this doesn't happen."