OMAHA, Neb. -- Everyone at TD Ameritrade Park should've expected a classic pitcher's duel between two of the nation's premier arms in Ole Miss righthander Chris Ellis and Virginia sophomore lefthander Nathan Kirby.
Though all the first round matchups in Omaha had their own level of intrigue, the most anticipated matchup of the weekend came Sunday night, as the Rebels with Ellis and Cavaliers with Kirby took the field hoping to advance to the winner's bracket against TCU.
Both elite pitchers had something to prove on Sunday, and both impressed in completely different ways. Ellis allowed five runs in 2 1/3 innings last weekend against Louisiana-Lafayette. Ellis sat in the press conference room in Lafayette, La., vowing to be better the next time out, even warming up in the bullpen in the series finale against the Cajuns. That outing never happened, but you just had a feeling he'd be much better in some way the next time out.
And he was.
The same can be said for Kirby, who shined in a 2-1 win over Ole Miss to advance to Tuesday's winner's bracket game against TCU. Last weekend against Maryland, Kirby allowed five runs on seven hits in 4 2/3 innings. And like Ellis, he couldn't wait to get back out there in the College World Series.
"My plan was to go out there and make them beat me," Kirby said after the game. "I thought I did a good job of that. I mixed a couple of my pitches well. I left a few of my pitches up last week [against Maryland] and really wanted to turn the page."
It didn't take long for Kirby to make his impact known in this one. The Rebels went 1-2-3 in the first inning against Kirby, and didn't fair much better the rest of the way. Kirby had an easy 1-2-3 second inning before working out of a mini-jam in the third inning after shortstop Errol Robinson began the frame with a single.
Kirby blew past the Rebels in the middle innings, not allowing a hit the rest of his performance and allowing just a run in seven innings. Kirby had filthy overall stuff against the Rebels, sitting 91-94 with his fastball, 83-85 with a plus slider, especially against lefthanded hitters, while also utilizing his changeup. Kirby struck out four batters and threw just 84 pitches in the stellar seven-inning performance.
"His stuff was really, really good," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "He had a little bump in the road last weekend, but tonight, the command of his fastball was great, his breaking ball was very good, and his changeup was good, too. He was just spectacular tonight."
With Kirby so electric for the Cavaliers, Chris Ellis and the Rebels were left with almost no room for error. Virginia didn't pose a serious threat in the first two innings, but flipped the script the rest of the night by putting the Rebels on their heels, only to watch Ellis consistently find ways to get out of massive jams.
Ellis, as was the case last weekend, struggled with command at times. But showcased his typical low-90s fastball, changeup and curveball, and was terrific in high-traffic situations. In other words, Ellis was the tough-minded pitcher we came to know throughout the spring.
Ellis was lifted after throwing 102 pitches in six innings. Jeremy Massie threw a scoreless seventh inning, while he was relieved by consistent righthanded reliever Aaron Greenwood in the eighth inning. Greenwood went 1-2-3 in the eighth.
Virginia, which was waiting to explode at some point in this game with 11 runners left on base, finally found some success in the ninth. The Cavaliers began the ninth with a Greenwood walk of nine-hole hitter and catcher Nate Irving. Then came a sacrifice bunt by leadoff hitter Branden Cogswell before young shortstop Daniel Pinero struck out to setup a showdown between Greenwood and powerful Cavaliers three-hole hitter Mike Papi.
With a runner on second base and first base open, Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco could've put Papi on with two outs, opting instead to face Joe McCarthy. However, that was far from a sure bet, especially considering the same ploy backfired in the fifth inning when McCarthy connected for an RBI single after a Papi intentional walk.
Bianco opted to pitch to Papi, who had a terrific at-bat and smoked a 3-2 changeup into the gap in right-center field to win the game.
"It's not like you feel comfortable just pitching around him and walking him to get to McCarty," Bianco said. "We did that last time and McCarthy got a base hit. Then there's Fisher right there behind him, too.
"Aaron was close. He was just a pitch away from getting out of it," he continued. "But Mike [Papi] just did a really good job of staying on the ball."
The matchup between the Cavaliers and Rebels didn't disappoint.
GAME AT A GLANCE
Player of the game: Nathan Kirby, lhp, Virginia
Turning point: There wasn't a true turning point in this game until the ninth inning. Ole Miss tied the Cavaliers at 1-1 in the eighth inning before going quietly in the ninth inning. However, that's when the action began. In the bottom half of the ninth, Virginia catcher Nate Irving led off the frame with a walk. After a sacrifice bunt and strikeout against Ole Miss righthanded pitcher Aaron Greenwood, the Cavaliers brought hard-hitting Mike Papi to the plate with two outs. Papi smashed a 3-2 changeup from Greenwood into the right center field gap, knocking in the game's winning run in dramatic fashion.
Did you know? Both Ole Miss righthanded pitcher Chris Ellis and Virginia lefty Nathan Kirby threw well on Sunday despite some struggles last weekend. Ellis had command issues against Louisiana-Lafayette last weekend, allowing five runs in just 2 1/3 innings, while Kirby was lifted against Maryland after allowing five runs on seven hits in 4 2/3 innings. Both pitchers, though, were terrific Sunday night.