The Mecca

OMAHA, Neb. - Television doesn't do justice to TD Ameritrade Park and the spectacle that is the College World Series in Omaha. As Voice of the Rebels David Kellum is wont to say, "Wow!"

Like the joke that isn't funny unless you are there to witness it first hand, the College World Series is something you have to see to get the full measure of.

Like seeing Augusta National for the first time. . .

. . . like going to the Kentucky Derby or the Indy 500 or the Super Bowl. . .one of sports' great venues/events.

This, the CWS, is the mecca of college baseball, as grand as you would imagine replete with baseball's version of a premium setting.

Start with TD Ameritrade Park, that replaced the old "big house," Rosenblatt Stadium, in 2011.

In a word, magnificent, a smaller version of a major league park. Every detail perfect, from the manicured field to the courtesy of hundreds of staffers that attend to fans' every need with a smile to everything in between.

The Rebs played their opener in front of a nearly-packed crowd - over 23,000 - in a venue that holds nearly 25,000 fans. For college baseball. Two-and-a-half times bigger than our record crowd at OU Stadium, which we are damn proud of and rightly so.

This is nothing but a guess, and a wild one at that, but I'd say about 10K of the fans were of Ole Miss and UVA persuasion, meaning about 14,000 were there for the love of the event and a passion for the best college baseball has to offer.

I saw fans from all over the country, proudly displaying their colors, and their teams were nowhere in sight.

And why not? Personally, yours truly held out until the Rebels made it. Now, I am wondering why I waited to come here.

The setting beyond the stadium, the heart of downtown Omaha, is also impressive. Lively, clean, comfortable and plenty to do. A big city with over 450,000 residents with a small-town feel and a mantra of hospitality.

It's called the Heartland of America for a reason. From the people I have encountered, there's a great deal of pride in what they have to offer the people who come to this showcase event.

They are genuine, like Southerners. Gracious and deeply-rooted in their culture.

Suffice it to say, it's been worth the wait for this Rebel, but it won't be the last time I take this in.

But the reason all of this comes together is for the baseball and the last eight teams standing for the collegiate season.

All eight earned being here the hard way, all eight deserving, all eight extremely talented and successful and all eight shooting for the grand prize, the national title.

The Rebels drew Virginia and ace sophomore lefty Nathan Kirby, the Co-ACC Pitcher of the Year and a member of the U.S. National Collegiate Team this summer.

Kirby touched 96 MPH several times, rare velocity for a southpaw, and he kept the Rebs off-balance. Through four frames, the only Reb hit was a single by nine-hole hitter Errol Robinson, the freshman shortstop, who was promptly picked off on a failed hit and run attempt.

Reb starter Chris Ellis struggled some with his control in the early going, but kept UVA at bay, matching the goose eggs Kirby was putting on the scoreboard through four frames.

Unfortunately, Ellis gave up three singles in the fifth and UVA pushed across the first run of the game.

Through five innings the difference in the game, as marginal as the difference seemed, was that it appeared UVA had honed in on Ellis somewhat and the Rebs had not gotten a bead on Kirby.

The high-powered offense of the Rebs looked anything but against Kirby. Anemic may be a better word.

Credit Kirby, as good, maybe better, at least on this night, as any pitcher the Rebs have seen this season.

Painful flashback to the 2009 Super Regional when another UVA lefty, Danny Hultzen, shut the Rebels down on their way to the CWS through Oxford.

The Cavalier offense wasn't exactly lighting it up, and Ellis was hanging tough, but through six frames, it looked as if a 1-0 lead would hold up with Kirby in command of the Rebel bats. Through six, the talented hurler had thrown just 66 pitches for 44 strikes. Ellis was at 98 pitches through the same six innings.

Case in point. In the seventh, Kirby threw six pitches, all for strikes, and got three ground outs by the Rebs' 2-3-4 hitters, Auston Bousfield, Austin Anderson and Will Allen. That is machine-like precision and effectiveness.

Ellis gave way to Jeremy Massie after one batter, a four-pitch walk, in the bottom of the seventh. Even though he didn't have his best stuff on the night, allowing only six hits and one run in six innings is pretty salty in its own right. Any other night, and you'd probably chalk that up as a Rebel win.

Not this night.

Kirby's slim 1-0 lead felt like 5-0, maybe more. He was that dominant. On the side of objectivity, maybe the Rebel bats were ice cold at the most inopportune time, but nobody in the press box saw it that way. The praise for Kirby was unanimous among media types.

The Reb bats, in their opinion, were handcuffed and hogtied by a superior pitching performance.

In baseball vernacular, Kirby was nasty. A fastball that went anywhere from 90-96 and a wicked 82 MPH slider that dove sharply away from lefties at the last instant.

"He was just better than us today," said Robinson, who had the only hit for the Rebs on the night. "He threw three pitches for strikes and kept us off-balance all night. Credit to him and their reliever was nasty too. I was a little surprised we didn't hit better tonight, but there's a reason Virginia has what is considered to have the best pitching staff in America. They are good, real good."

Then, in a flash in the top of the eighth, the wheels mysteriously came off and Kirby walked the first two batters. Kirby was yanked and for some odd reason UVA Coach Brian O'Connor didn't put in All-American reliever Nick Howard, a first-round pick in the recent MLB draft.

O'Connor went with righty Artie Lewicki, no slouch himself with a 6-1 record and 1.62 ERA.

A sac bunt by Robinson put runners on second and third and Reb Coach Mike Bianco pinch hit Holt Perdzock, a hero of the Super Regional finale with a bases clearing triple that sealed the deal.

Perdzock hit a sharp grounder to short and the Rebs had tied it, 1-1, through 7 1/2. A spark, light at the end of the tunnel.

Kirby out of the game, Rebs holding some momentum. . .

Bianco turned to reliever Aaron Greenwood in the bottom of the eighth. Pop to first, K and line out to first.

The Rebs did not capitalize on their momentum in the top of the ninth and turned to Greenwood again to try to put the game in extra innings.

Greenwood walked the leadoff hitter, Nate Irving, the nine-hole batter. A sac bunt put the winning run on second. Freshman Wahoo SS Daniel Pinero worked the count to 3-0 but fanned on three straight Greenwood strikes.

With two outs, 1B Mike Papi drove the game-winner to right center for the 2-1 win for Virginia on another 3-2 count.

The first CWS game for Ole Miss in 42 years ended on a sour note, but it was a classic pitcher's duel between what most consider the two best pitching staffs in this tournament.

The Rebs will have to lick their wounds tomorrow and get ready for Texas Tech Tuesday at 2 p.m. in an elimination game.

LHP Christian Trent, who shut down ULL in the Super Regional in last week's elimination game, will start for the Rebels against the Red Raiders.

"I wish the team wasn't in this position, but I am looking forward to Tuesday," said Trent. "The crowd, the moment, I look forward to it."

It was a loss, a tough loss, but the magic of Omaha, TD Ameritrade Park and the College World Series is something to behold.

Fortunately, the Rebs have a chance to prolong their visit and redeem their opening loss Tuesday afternoon.

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