By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In his first two seasons at UVa, Dan Grovatt hit for power, hit for average, stole bases and played stellar defense in right field. About the only thing he didn’t do for the Cavaliers was pitch.
“We’re going to use him out of the bullpen a little bit,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “We tinkered with it this fall, and it’s looked really good.”
Grovatt, who made the all-ACC first team as an outfielder in 2009, has consistently met the challenges he’s faced since joining O’Connor’s program, so there’s ample reason to believe he’ll thrive in this role, too. Plus, it’s not as if he’s new to the mound.
At Seneca High School in Tabernacle, N.J. — also the hometown of former UVa great Sean Doolittle — Grovatt went 20-2 as a pitcher.
“I threw a lot,” he said, “and I’d say I was probably recruited here more for my arm out of high school.”
During fall practices in 2007 and again in ’08, the 6-1, 195-pound left-hander took turns at pitcher. As the 2008 and ’09 seasons approached, however, UVa’s coaches decided Grovatt wasn’t needed on the mound.
“I got to about this point both years, and they said, ‘You know what? Just concentrate on hitting,'” Grovatt recalled. “Hopefully we’ll see it through this year.”
He’s practicing as if that will be the case, and he’s been reminded that pitching requires different muscles than his regular position.
“I throw a lot in the outfield, but it’s definitely an adjustment, because [on the mound] you’re throwing every pitch as hard as you can,” Grovatt said. “You definitely have to get back in shape, and I’ve realized that your arm gets out of shape quicker than you think.”
His hitting stroke needs only fine-tuning. In 2008, he batted .324, second only to John Barr (.325) at UVa. In 2009, Grovatt led the team in batting (.356) and tied for third with 8 home runs.
He batted cleanup in 2009 and will hit in the middle of the order again this year. There are other Cavaliers with more power, but Grovatt is “a tough guy to strike out,” O’Connor said, and that makes him extraordinarily valuable.
“Danny’s just a really good athlete.”
Virginia opens the season Friday afternoon at East Carolina, where Terry Holland is athletics director. UVa and ECU also will meet Saturday and Sunday in Greenville.
Of the UVa players with at least 200 at-bats last season, Grovatt had the fewest strikeouts. He had at least one hit in each of the Cavaliers’ first 19 games and later had streaks of nine and 10 games, respectively.
“He’s got a knack for the barrel of his bat finding the ball,” O’Connor said.
At the ACC tournament in Durham, N.C., Grovatt went 8 for 18 in leading the ‘Hoos to the championship. He was named the tourney’s MVP.
“I think he’ll hit even more this year,” O’Connor said, “just because he’s a year older, stronger and continues to be a better player.”
At the plate, Grovatt said, he’s worked on using his legs more when he swings.
“You can always get better,” he said. “Average-wise, I would like to see myself hit for a higher average this year than I did last year. I guess you shoot for that every year.”
To say 2009 was a remarkable year for Grovatt would be an understatement. He helped UVa advance to the College World Series for the first time in school history and also distinguished himself off the field, making the ACC’s all-academic baseball team.
He had a memorable summer, too. After returning from Omaha, Neb., Grovatt joined the Harwich Mariners of the Cape Cod League. He made the all-star game and got to play in Fenway Park.
“It was fantastic,” Grovatt said.
That he landed in Charlottesville out of high school shocked no one. Growing up in Tabernacle, he and Doolittle were friends, and Doolittle’s success at Virginia made Grovatt “an easy sell,” O’Connor said.
Doolittle, who’s now in the Athletics’ organization, was a two-way player at UVa, starting at first base when he wasn’t pitching.
The UVa teams on which Doolittle played all advanced to the NCAA tournament, but none got as far as the 2009 Cavaliers. With all of their starting position players back, the ‘Hoos head into this season ranked in the top 5 of many polls, and expectations never have been higher for O’Connor’s program.
Having been to Omaha once, Grovatt acknowledged, he’s likely to be disappointed if UVa doesn’t return this year. He knows that won’t be easy.
“I would say the biggest thing for us is to stay focused,” he said. “It might be a little harder. We’re a year older. We’ve been to the College World Series.
“But we have to approach it as, the reason we got to where we were last year was we worked, and that’s the same attitude we’re going to have to have this year.”