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Feb. 6, 2005

2005 Virginia Baseball Preview

Virginia baseball is at an all-time high. Never before has the UVa baseball program experienced as much success and drawn as much interest as it is enjoying right now. There’s a new brand of baseball being played in Charlottesville and the community has taken notice. Once again, there’s plenty of reason for all the buzz surrounding the Cavalier baseball program in 2005.

Last season (2004), Virginia recorded one of the most successful seasons in the history of the UVa baseball program. From tying the most overall wins in a single season at Virginia and recording the most ACC victories in school history, to achieving the highest national ranking ever and hosting the school’s first ever NCAA Regional, the 2004 Virginia baseball season was – and forever will be – a year to remember.

Shortly after Brian O’Connor was named the new head baseball coach at UVa, he met with his team in the preseason and told them they could and would compete with any team in the country. His players bought into his system and style of coaching, which proved to be the perfect formula for the Cavaliers’ success. In just one season, Virginia developed into the type of team O’Connor envisioned he would build one day in Charlottesville.

O’Connor and the Cavaliers caught the college baseball world by storm. To some, the success came even sooner than expected. But as much as O’Connor enjoyed the newfound success and the magic ride to the top, he’ll be the first to explain maintaining that type of success again this season will take another year of hard work from everyone associated with the program.

“I think the season we had last year was critical for the future of our program,” said O’Connor. “It built momentum for the future and I believe what our players accomplished last season was a big step for us.”

In the Cavaliers’ eyes, last year is now just that – last year. Virginia will have to prove itself all over again this season. UVa will not be sneaking up on anyone this year and has gone from being the `hunter’ to the `hunted’ in one short season.

Virginia’s team strengths last season lied in its pitching, infield defense and timely hitting. All three of those areas will once again be UVa’s strong suits this season. With a core of veteran players returning and a talented group of newcomers, the Cavaliers look to excel again in all areas.

UVa’s starting weekend pitching rotation turned in an outstanding campaign in 2004. At first glance at Virginia’s starting pitching rotation for 2005, it might appear the losses of All-ACC performers Andrew Dobies and Joe Koshansky, both of whom were selected in the first six rounds of the 2004 MLB Draft, may have left the Cavaliers a little shorthanded in their weekend rotation this year. While UVa will certainly miss the production of both lefties and the 15 wins they combined for last season, the Cavaliers will actually return the pitcher who came on the strongest down the stretch for them in Matt Avery (7-2, 3.22 ERA, 51K).

Avery, a powerful 6′-5″ RHP, was arguably UVa’s best pitcher at season’s end. He simply dominated the opposition down the home stretch and ended his 2004 campaign by pitching a complete game shutout against Princeton in the 2004 Charlottesville Regional. Avery is ready to prove once again he’s one of the top talents in the ACC and will look to solidify himself as the ace on Virginia’s pitching staff in 2005.

“Avery is going to have to be one of our anchors of our pitching staff,” said O’Connor. “He’s going to be one of the key starters in our rotation and will be critical to our team’s success this season. Avery had an absolute breakout season last year. He pitched many critical games for us and I really felt like he had the most consistent performances in the last month of the season in our rotation. Avery’s got a great pitcher’s body, he’s got a live arm, he throws strikes and he really competes. I think he’s destined for great things this year.”

In a somewhat unique case, UVa will replace its two departed starters from last season’s rotation with two weekend starters from the 2003 season in Jeff Kamrath (3-1, 2.72 ERA, 44K in 2003) and Mike Ballard (2-2, 1.93 ERA, 26K in 2003). Kamrath, a fourth-year RHP and Ballard, a third-year LHP, were the number one and two starters, respectively, in the Cavaliers’ weekend rotation two years ago before both pitchers suffered season-ending injuries. They both expect to challenge for starting spots and work their way back into the weekend rotation this year to give the Cavaliers another outstanding weekend staff.

Kamrath, a Second Team All-ACC selection as a second-year, turned down an offer to play in the Cleveland Indians organization after the Tribe drafted him in the 36th round of the 2004 MLB Draft. When at the top of his game, Kamrath has shown the ability to dominate batters and proved himself as one of the top pitchers in the ACC when he developed into the ace of Virginia’s staff two years ago. The last time he took the mound for the Cavaliers, Kamrath pitched a compete game shutout and struck out 11 batters on March 28, 2003 in a 6-0 victory over Maryland. He hopes to return to that type of form in his final season at UVa.

“Kamrath is one of the captains of the team and he’s a great leader,” said O’Connor. “I’ve been so impressed with him since our coaching staff arrived here last year. The way he went about his rehab and his business, you can see he’s got a real passion for the game of baseball. Kamrath’s one of those players you just love to be around. He pitched at the end of this summer and this fall and he’s continuing to progress and he looks very good. I hope we see him back to the form he was in before his injury.”

Ballard started his collegiate career with a bang and turned heads with his crafty pitching style right from the start. Like Kamrath, Ballard was also pitching at the top of his game when he season was cut short by an injury. In his last outing for the Cavaliers, Ballard stifled #20 Clemson when he shut down a potent Tiger offense and handed them their first home loss of the season by tossing 5.0 scoreless innings and striking out six batters to pace Virginia to a 4-1 road win in Clemson, S.C. on April 5, 2003.

“Ballard is going to do some really good things this year,” said O’Connor. “His rehab is going fantastic and he pitched at the end of summer and in the fall as well. Ballard showed this fall in our inter-squad scrimmages why he was so highly thought of by his peers. There were times he pitched absolutely dominating. I think with Ballard being left-handed along with his ability and poise, it will allow him to be a really good starting pitcher in our program.”

As important as a solid weekend rotation is to a team’s success, mid-week and relief pitching is just as critical. Sometimes the difference between a good and a great season can boil down to a consistent and deep bullpen. Fortunately for UVa, it has a wealth of arms to turn to when needed. The Cavaliers have a group of key returners back in the mix and have added several quality arms that were brought in from its recent top-notch recruiting class.

Virginia has a quartet of returning pitchers that will provide assistance when called upon. Veterans Adam Laird (0-0, 3.77 ERA, 10K), Scott Morgenthaler (1-1, 3.47 ERA, 9K), Alex Smith (1-0, 7.13 ERA, 14K) and Josh Myers (1-0, 3.12 ERA, 12K) have big-game experience and provide a nice blend of game-proven pitching styles to the rotation.

Laird, a seasoned fourth-year RHP, has improved each of his first three years on the mound and will look to continue that trend. Laird has made three career starts but has seen most of his action in relief duty.

“I know Laird wants to go out and really contribute to the team’s success,” said O’Connor. “Laird’s scheduled to pitch out of the bullpen and I’m looking for him to make some very good contributions in his senior year.”

Morgenthaler, a fourth-year LHP, has developed into a viable option out of the bullpen for the Cavaliers. After transferring from Liberty three seasons ago, Morgenthaler has logged valuable time on the mound and has proven he can be counted upon.

“Morgenthaler’s got a unique style in that he’s not overpowering, but he’s got great command,” said O’Connor. “He’ll be counted on again this year to throw some critical innings for us.”

Smith, a second-year LHP, also gives UVa another lefty it can turn to in the clutch. His versatility was evident last year as a freshman when he made 11 appearances, including four appearances in a starting role.

“Smith made some big contributions for us last year as a true freshman,” said O’Connor. “He’s got good stuff, and if he continues to improve and becomes more consistent, he will do some very good things.”

Myers came to the Cavaliers two years ago as a walk-on and has found his niche in the rotation ever since. His wind-up and quirky release keeps opposing hitters guessing at what pitches they will see next. Though he has served in a limited role in his first two seasons of play, he’s been very effective and the coaching staff feels confident they can turn to him when needed.

“Myers has continued to work hard and improve in his career,” said O’Connor. He threw 17 innings for us last year and he’ll be primarily used out of the bullpen again this season.”

Virginia has a cast of newcomers that are eager and willing to share the work load this season. The stellar group of first-years, many of them pitchers, bolster UVa’s already deep and talented rotation. O’Connor and his staff went after some of the top talent in the country and landed all of their targeted recruits.

Three of those recruits (two of them pitchers) were selected in the 2004 MLB Draft, but the trio decided to become Cavaliers. Two of those three players, left-handers Sean Doolittle (drafted in the 39th round by the Atlanta Braves) and Pat McAnaney (drafted in the 28th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates), will most likely be key contributors right away on the pitching staff for Virginia.

O’Connor and his staff speak very highly of Doolittle, a 6′-2″ LHP from New Jersey. Doolittle has already drawn comparison to former UVa All-American Joe Koshansky because of his strong left-handed pitching and his ability to hit and defend at first base. The UVa coaches aren’t the only ones excited about what this freshman can provide, as Baseball America tabbed Doolittle the 2005 Preseason ACC Freshman of the Year.

“I think the sky is the limit for Doolittle,” said O’Connor. “He was a very successful high school player. He’s left-handed, he’s got a great arm and he’s very athletic. Doolittle is going to be counted on this year on the mound. We’re not sure in what role – starting pitcher or relief – but he’s a confident person and confident in his own abilities.”

Not to be overshadowed by his classmate, McAnaney comes to UVa as another highly touted recruit himself. He is a 6′-3″ southpaw who hails from New York and is projected to be either a mid-week starter or an option out of the bullpen.

“McAnaney has a great body with a good arm,” said O’Connor. “As he continues to adjust to college baseball, he’s going to continue to get better and better.”

The Cavaliers have an influx of talented RHPs that will also be new to the pitching staff this season. Michael Schwimer, Ryan Ouellette, Jordan Ellis, Robert Poutier, Erick Chandler and Allie Swanson supply a deep and talented pool of fresh arms to the UVa bullpen.

One pitcher who caught the eye of O’Connor and his coaching staff during the fall season was Schwimer. The tallest player on the UVa roster at 6′-7″, Schwimer was consistent on the mound and showed a lot of poise while turning in one of the better performances on the team during the fall.

“Schwimer throws strikes and he’s able to pitch right away,” said O’Connor. “I’ve got confidence that he can take a significant role this year. He’s one of the guys who can really push the upperclassmen for one of the starting roles. Schwimer just knows how to win on the mound.”

O’Connor also liked what he saw from Ouellette and Ellis during the fall and feels they both bring a lot of skill to the table. Expect this duo to contribute out of the bullpen in the early going.

“I believe Ouellette can really contribute for us as a freshman,” said O’Connor. “He’s got a very competitive attitude and has a really good arm. I see Ouellette having the opportunity to contribute for us out of the bullpen. Ellis will pitch out of the bullpen as well. I think he has to be very effective against a team for one time around the lineup, and that’s the type of role he’ll probably be used in.”

One player the coaching staff has high hopes for is Poutier, a 6′-4″ right-hander. Unfortunately for Poutier, he was injured for part of the fall season and didn’t have too many opportunities to pitch. However, he fits the bill for what the coaching staff looks for in a pitcher.

“Poutier is out of that same mold that we like to recruit the majority of our pitchers – a tall, lanky, projectable pitcher,” said O’Connor. “He’s got a really good arm, a good breaking ball and a good change-up. I think the future is very bright for him.”

Chandler is a newcomer to the UVa pitching staff, but not a newcomer to college baseball. The 6′-4″ RHP comes to Virginia after transferring from Georgetown University, where he posted a record of 5-5 with a 4.80 ERA and 57 strikeouts after making 15 appearances including eight starts in 2004.

“Chandler had success last year at Georgetown as a freshman and was one of their top pitchers,” said O’Connor. “He’s got a good body and a loose, quick arm and he’s someone who will add to the competition on the pitching staff.”

Swanson joined the team after making the squad during Virginia`s tryout program. He landed a spot on the pitching staff because of how well he threw in his outings during UVa’s fall season.

“On a pitching staff that had a lot of good pitchers already, it was going to be tough to keep somebody,” said O’Connor. “But Swanson earned it – he pitched so well that he earned a place on our team. He’ll be used in a relief role.”

Last season, Virginia’s pitching staff was as deep and productive as it has been in many years. But as good as it’s starting pitching and middle relief pitching was, UVa had one of the top closers in the country in LHP Casey Lambert (4-1, 2.54 ERA, 40K). All Lambert did in his first season at UVa was tie the school record for most saves in a single season with eight. He made a team-high 29 appearances on the mound and nearly threw a compete game in his first and only collegiate start.

“Lambert had an unbelievable season last year. We would not have had the success we had last year without him,” said O’Connor. “Lambert pitched so many critical games for us. He closed all three games at Georgia Tech and pitched in nearly half of our games. Lambert is just the ultimate competitor. He gets it done when the game is on the line, at the most critical time in the most pressured situations. I think he’s going to be in a very similar role this year, which is going to be critical for our team.”

One of the best assets on the team for the Virginia pitching staff is catcher Scott Headd (.260, 45 hits, 31 RBI). Headd, one of UVa’s four co-captains this year, has been a mainstay behind the plate for the Cavaliers for the past three consecutive seasons and has developed into an All-ACC caliber catcher. He thwarted 14 attempted stolen base attempts from behind the plate with his arm and came through with key hits to spark several comeback victories for UVa last season at the plate.

“Headd is a tremendous leader on and off the field,” said O’Connor. “I think it’s great when you can have one of the captains of your team, who is one of your leaders that the players look up to and respect, as your catcher. There is not a more critical position on the field than catcher, and Headd does a fabulous job of handling our pitching staff and managing a game. That is critical, because pitching and defense are two of the most important parts of our program and he has so much to do with our success.”

While Headd spent nearly the entire season behind the plate last year for Virginia, the Cavaliers will look to several backups to provide depth at the position and the ability to step in and contribute when needed. One of those players is junior college transfer Matt Bernstine.

“Bernstine is a lot along the lines of Headd in the type of person he is. Bernstine will take charge and is a leader,” said O’Connor. “I thought it was important to get an established player in that position so Headd didn’t have to catch every game for us throughout the year, so he can be strong at the end of the season.”

A trio of catchers that will battle for playing time behind Headd and Bernstine are first-year Nick Cruit, second-year Ryan Hudson (.429, 3 hits, 1 RBI) and newcomer Adam Ventre.

“Cruit is a player that has the physical skills to one day be a very good catcher in our program,” said O’Connor. “He’s got size and arm strength and he’ll continues to learn the game and progress. Hudson provides added depth and he’ll also compete for our right-handed designated hitter spot. Like Swanson, Ventre also made the team through the team’s tryout program.

Solid defense was a big reason Virginia experienced so much of its success last season. In 2004, UVa recorded the best single season fielding percentage in school history with a mark of .973. That should be the norm again this year as Virginia returns most of its key infielders in the diamond and the Cavaliers have a few gems to turn to again in 2005.

The loss of Koshansky also leaves a void at first base, where he was the starter when he wasn’t taking the mound in a weekend series as a pitcher. However, UVa does return Josh Darby (.282, 22 hits, 7 RBI) at that position. Darby, a second-year returner, missed the second half of last season after suffering an injury. Before he went down, he provided a valuable glove and a hot bat in the UVa lineup. Darby is now healthy and looks to return to the form he displayed early last season, and he should man the starting spot at first base this year.

“Darby is a very good hitter,” said O’Connor. “He has the ability to bat in the middle of our lineup and he can be a big RBI producer. Darby makes consistent contact and he’s got some power. It was unfortunate he got hurt last year because his bat in our lineup was critical. He did some really good things offensively when we plugged him in there.”

Doolittle will also look to make a name for himself at first base when he’s not on the mound. As a hitter and position player, he’ll compete at first base and could make an immediate impact in the line-up.

“Doolittle’s a very good defensive first baseman, and he’s also going to swing the bat for us,” said O’Connor. “He’s a candidate at first base and also a candidate as a designated hitter. As a hitter, he’s left-handed and his bat finds the barrel very consistently. Anytime you can have a player on your team that legitimately can contribute to the success of your team like Doolittle can on the mound and at the plate, that’s a special player.”

Tom Hagan (.281, 32 hits, 22 RBI) has been a jack of all trades for Virginia after joining the baseball team on a full time basis. Hagan made the transition to the baseball team from the football team where he served as the team’s starting punter. Hagan has logged time at first base, left field, designated hitter and pinch runner in two seasons with the Cavaliers. O’Connor has the option of using Hagan’s speed in key situations and can use him at either first base or in left field to solidify the defense.

“Hagan will be an option for us at first base and he played some there last year,” said O’Connor. “We’re looking at him more to play in left field. The nice thing about Hagan is, we know he’s an option for us at either position if we need him to be.”

Another former UVa football player turned baseball player that could see some playing time at first base and as a designated hitter is Anthony Martinez. Martinez is a strong 6′-3″, 245-pound athlete who adds instant power to the line-up with his bat. He possesses an explosive swing and is adjusting to his new role as a first baseman. Martinez made quite an impression on scouts as a pitcher in high school before settling on a playing career in football. Now, he will try and hone his skills as either a first baseman or DH as he strives to make his mark in the lineup.

“Martinez is making nice progress since joining the team,” said O’Connor. “He’ll compete at first base and as a right-handed designated hitter.”

If ever there was an unsung hero on the team, Kyle Werman (.271, 52 hits, 28 RBI) just might fit the description best. Werman epitomizes the team concept of the Virginia Cavaliers and has developed into one of the most efficient defensive infielders in the ACC over his career. His sure-handed fielding and ability to turn a double play has given Virginia one of the most reliable infielders to ever wear orange and blue. Werman, a co-captain on the team, has a knack for getting on base and producing key hits, while also sacrificing his at-bat for the good of the team. Essentially, he does what is asked of him to help the team win.

“Werman is a leader and he plays with so much fire,” said O’Connor. “He plays the game the way we want our players to play the game – 100 percent – all the time. He’s a scrappy overachiever that has the type of attitude that he can accomplish anything. Defensively, he is as good a second baseman as you’ll see. I think Werman is a critical piece for us because he’s the glue that holds our infield together.”

Backing up Werman at second base will be newcomers Joe Florio and Patrick Wingfield. Florio, a 39th round draft pick of the Oakland A’s, is likely the first back-up option. Florio joined Doolittle and McAnaney as Cavaliers who passed up an immediate shot at playing for a MLB organization right out of high school, and instead elected to play for UVa. Wingfield displays the type of versatility that gives Virginia a back-up option at nearly ever infield position in the diamond.

“Florio will be an option for us at second base, but he’s also competing for playing time in left field. Wingfield is more of a utility player who can play second base, shortstop or third base,” said O’Connor.

Shortstop is arguably the most important position of the infield. While the Cavaliers lost the services of All-ACC shortstop Mark Reynolds after serving three years as a starter, Virginia has several viable options to turn to. Mike Campagna is a junior college transfer who will look to nail down the starting position. He earned the starting job coming out of fall baseball and O’Connor has faith that he’ll fit right in at the positions.

“We obviously have a hole to fill with Reynolds leaving, but I have confidence in Campagna that he’s going to do everything it takes to help this team win,” said O’Connor. “He makes the consistent routine plays at shortstop. Campagna just sticks his nose in there and makes the play.”

Werman could also be an option at shortstop if needed. He logged some playing time there last year and has proven, with his glove and his arm, that he can position the spot if needed.

The Cavaliers feature one of the top players in the entire country at third base in veteran Ryan Zimmerman (.361, 90 hits, 45 RBI). Zimmerman, who had a record-breaking campaign last season while recording the most hits in a single season at UVa, is a rare talent that excels both on the field and at the plate for Virginia. He has developed into one of the best players in collegiate baseball at his position and is arguably the best defensive player in the conference. A 2004 First Team All-ACC selection and Player of the Year candidate for 2005, Zimmerman has already landed on Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball and the NCBWA’s Preseason All-America Teams.

This past summer, Zimmerman donned a red, white and blue uniform and suited up for Team USA. He went on to lead Team USA to a gold medal in the 2004 FIFU II World University Games en route to winning the team’s Triple Crown and set a Team USA single season batting average record after hitting .468.

In his two years as a valuable starter for Virginia, Zimmerman has displayed exceptional defense and has hit for a high batting average. Some onlookers say he’s one of the best collegiate players they have ever watched play, and O’Connor can attest to that.

“Zimmerman is just an all-around, outstanding and talented player that knows how to play the game and plays the game the right way,” said O’Connor. “He’s the best position player I have ever coached. His defensive ability, his offensive production and his knowledge of the game makes him a very advanced player. He’s added more power to his swing and he’ll probably put up even better offensive numbers this year than he did last season for us.”

Backing up Zimmerman at third base will be talented newcomer Brandon Guyer. Guyer is a physically gifted athlete with size, strength and good speed.

“Guyer is a player who eventually in our program is going to hit for power and be able to hit in the middle of the order,” said O’Connor.

The Cavaliers essentially welcome back all of their starters and their top back-ups to the outfield in 2005. Virginia’s starting outfield possess very good speed, which is a premium in the ACC. It’s also a bonus for tracking down fly balls in the spacious confines of the UVa Baseball Stadium, which is one of the larger collegiate facilities in the country.

In right field, Virginia will enjoy the services of co-captain Matt Street (.283, 60 hits, 37 RBI), a three-year starter who has put together a very solid career as a Cavalier. Street does a great job of utilizing his speed and ability to reach base. He led the Cavaliers with a team-high 19 stolen bases last season and also managed to reach base 14 times after being hit by a pitch, a category in which he stands second all-time in the history of UVa baseball with 29. Street’s bat has always been productive and he usually has one of the higher averages on the team.

“I have as much respect for Street as a player as I do for anybody,” said O’Connor. “What he went through last season – with multiple injuries to his hand and playing through that and doing everything he could to help the team – I’m just excited to see him back out there again this year with a fresh and healthy start. Street’s a very good player and is kind of a table-setter for us. He’ll hit at the top of the lineup again, he’s got a good arm he’s a very good defensive outfielder.”

UVa has two very proven players it can turn to handle the starting center field duties. Virginia’s second-year duo of Tim Henry (.256, 44 hits, 20 RBI) and Mike Mitchell (.300, 15 hits, 5 RBI) each bring a little something extra to the Cavaliers’ lineup. Both players split the starting center field duties last year, with Mitchell making 15 starts to begin the season before Henry closed out the year with 44 starts.

Mitchell handled the starting center field spot out of the gates and was very effective before an injury limited his play for the remainder of the season. Henry stepped in for Mitchell and picked right up where his teammate left off, and manned the job for the rest of the season. Whether it’s Henry or Mitchell in center field, O’Connor knows he’s got a proven player to choose for the starting position and has a more than capable player as a back-up.

“Henry really matured into a very good center fielder by the end of the year and developed into a pesky left-handed hitter,” said O’Connor. “He has continued to mature and continued to develop, and he’ll be a better player this season than he was last year. Center field is an absolutely critical position in our ballpark and I’m excited to see him take his game to another level this year.

“It was very unfortunate what happened to Mitchell last year with his injury. At that point of the season, he was one of our most productive players and he really was a sparkplug for us. Mitchell is going to give us more depth and competition in our outfield.”

While he is an option for playing time at first base, Hagan will probably hold down the starting duties in left field, where he is more seasoned and experienced. He is the frontrunner for the left field job, but there are several players who will be pushing him for the position. Hagan’s versatility and speed make him a good candidate to fill the starting role.

“Last year, Hagan was wasn’t able to play left field much because of an injury to his arm and he was used primarily as a designated hitter. He also played some first base after Darby’s injury last season,” said O’Connor. “I’m looking for Hagan to make a jump in his contribution offensively this season from last year.”

The designated hitter role will most likely be handled by a committee of players. Most likely, newcomers such as Doolittle, Guyer, Florio and Martinez or Hudson will man the position when not competing in other starting or back-up roles.

Cavalier fans will likely again see a very successful and well-coached team in 2005, similar to the squad that experienced all the success in 2004. O’Connor believes this year’s team will be very similar to the one last year from an offensive and defensive standpoint.

“A critical part of our team this year in 2005 is our leadership. We’re very fortunate to have four captains in Kamrath, Headd, Werman and Street who represent our program so well,” said O’Connor. “With that being said, we will again have to pitch great, play top-notch defense and execute offensively like we did last season. Those are the three things that will always be cornerstones of our program – great pitching, outstanding defense and executing offensively. If we do those three things, it always gives us a chance to win ballgames. I believe that formula, as a whole, lends itself to winning a lot of close games, and that is what we did that was so successful last season.”

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