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Ryan Zimmerman and Sean Doolittle go from Virginia standouts to World Series champions

Before the former Cavaliers helped secure the Washington Nationals’ first World Series title, they were excelling at Virginia

<p>Former Virginia baseball players infielder Ryan Zimmerman and pitcher Sean Doolittle are pictured here with Virginia Coach Brian O'Connor.</p>

Former Virginia baseball players infielder Ryan Zimmerman and pitcher Sean Doolittle are pictured here with Virginia Coach Brian O'Connor.

The Washington Nationals defeated the Houston Astros 6-2 in a decisive Game Seven of the World Series Wednesday night, marking the franchise’s first-ever championship. The series was the first World Series appearance for infielder Ryan Zimmerman and relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, two of the Nationals’ key players. Before they were Nationals teammates, Zimmerman and Doolittle played together at Virginia during the 2005 season, teaming up to lead the Cavaliers to their fifth NCAA tournament appearance in school history. In recognition of the two former MLB All-Stars securing baseball’s biggest prize, we looked back at the collegiate years of the duo that helped define Virginia baseball for years to come. 

When Ryan Zimmerman first arrived in Charlottesville in 2003, he was a relatively under-the-radar recruit. 

“I didn’t really think I had a chance at being a pro," Zimmerman said in a 2009 interview with ESPN. 

But former Virginia Coach Dennis Womack saw the potential in Zimmerman. In his freshman year, Zimmerman ended up starting every game of the 2003 season, hitting .308 along the way.

Returning as a sophomore with a warranted sense of confidence, Zimmerman put his name on the national radar after a dominant 2004 season. In current coach Brian O’Connor’s first season, Zimmerman batted .361 en route to First Team All-ACC honors. He then represented Team USA in the World University Baseball Championship that summer, leading the team in nearly every major statistical category. By the time the 2005 season rolled around, all 30 MLB teams had their eye on Zimmerman.

The 2005 season was Doolittle’s first year at Virginia, but he arrived with high expectations. Doolittle was the No. 52 ranked high school player in his class and turned down a contract from the Atlanta Braves to come play for the Cavaliers. Given the expectations surrounding Zimmerman, Doolittle and the rest of the roster, Virginia entered the season ranked No. 27 in the country.

The Cavaliers started the season strong, with an 8-3 record entering ACC play. Zimmerman and Doolittle — hitting third and fourth — combined to drive in 26 runs through the 11 games, with Zimmerman hitting .400 and Doolittle hitting .343. Doolittle was also used sparingly in relief, appearing in four games on the mound and giving up two runs in eight innings.

After getting swept at Wake Forest to begin ACC play, Virginia rattled off 11 straight wins to bring their record to 19-6. Doolittle earned his first win on the mound during this stretch, throwing six innings, giving up only one unearned run and hitting a home run against James Madison. This win streak set up a showdown against No. 11 ranked North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Anticlimactically, Virginia ended up dropping all three games, two of which went to extra innings.

Nevertheless, Zimmerman individually dominated, hitting .667 (10-15), and going 2-2 off the Tar Heels’ sophomore phenom Andrew Miller — who has just completed year 14 of his MLB career.

After playing up and down baseball over the next few series, Virginia made a statement with a big three-game sweep of No. 4 Georgia Tech. Doolittle threw four shutout innings in game two and three shutout innings the next day in game three, helping bring their record to 29-13.

The Cavaliers ended their regular season winning one game in each of their tough three-game series against No. 15 Florida and No. 4 Miami, and then sweeping Duke, led by Doolittle’s grand slam and four shutout innings in game three.

Virginia enters ACC Tournament as the No. 7 seed

Coming into the tournament, Zimmerman and Doolittle had batting averages standing at .399 and .327 respectively, and Doolittle boasted a 0.87 ERA over 41.1 innings. In their first game against No. 2 seed Clemson, the Cavaliers pulled off a convincing 8-1 upset. Zimmerman and Doolittle both picked up hits, and Doolittle threw two shutout innings in relief.

In their next game against No. 6 seed NC State, Zimmerman and Doolittle combined to lead the offense, scoring or driving in eight of the team’s 12 runs. This set up a rematch with Clemson in the semifinals. Spurred on by three and one-thirds innings of relief by Doolittle, Virginia eked out a 5-4 win, advancing to the championship against Georgia Tech. 

The Cavaliers came in as heavy underdogs to the title game, but a fifth inning RBI groundout by Zimmerman gave them an early lead. Virginia handed the ball over to Doolittle in the sixth to hold the lead. Fatigued from the semifinals game the day earlier, Doolittle walked three batters in the seventh and was eventually saddled with the loss, as the Cavaliers fell 4-3.

Virginia earns No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament regionals

In their first game against St. John’s, after the Red Storm opted to intentionally walk Zimmerman in the third inning, Doolittle took advantage of the two men on base with a two-run, two-out double. Defensively, the Cavaliers called on Doolittle to get them out of a bases loaded jam in the bottom of the fifth — which he successfully escaped with 3-3 tie. Nevertheless, St. John’s tagged Doolittle for four straight hits in the sixth to gain a 5-3 lead. The Red Storm held on for the win, which left Virginia facing elimination going into the Ohio State game.

Against No. 4 Ohio State, the Cavaliers found themselves in a tight pitching duel. Heading into the ninth inning the game was locked in a 1-1 tie. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Ohio State’s Eric Fryer trickled an RBI single through the middle, scoring the winning run and ending Virginia’s season short of the College World Series.

Post-2005 season

Zimmerman and Doolittle were both named second team All-ACC and to the ACC All-Tournament team. Zimmerman went on to be the fourth overall draft pick by the Washington Nationals that summer, the highest ever by a Cavalier at the time. Doolittle played two more seasons at Virginia, seamlessly handling the transition to starting pitcher and continued to dominate on the mound and at the plate. He was named ACC player of the year in 2006 and ended his career as the Virginia leader for career wins as a pitcher. He was drafted in the first round, No. 41 overall by the Oakland A’s in the 2007 MLB draft.

Zimmerman and Doolittle did not just leave their names all over Virginia’s record books, they also instilled a lasting legacy of success. Their season together sparked a remarkable run by the Cavaliers over the next 12 seasons, as Virginia made the NCAA tournament every year, the College World Series four times and won the College World Series in 2015.