Rounding the Bases with Brian O'Connor
The Virginia baseball team enters the 2010 season with unprecedented expectations. The Cavaliers are ranked as high as No. 2 nationally in the preseason, the program’s highest ranking at any point in school history. The entire starting lineup returns from last year, while much of UVa’s vaunted pitching staff also is back. Virginia will waste no time in challenging itself, traveling to No. 11 East Carolina this weekend (Feb. 19-21) for one of the marquee matchups in the opening weekend of college baseball. On the eve of the season, Cavaliers’ head coach Brian O’Connor talked about the high expectations, the crazy weather and his thoughts on this team.
How has life been different for you in these past few months since summer?
O’Connor: It’s been a little bit busier and the demands have been a little bit more, but it’s been great. This is what our players deserve because of the run they had last year. Despite the attention they are getting and the recognition our program is getting, it still comes down to playing the game of baseball the right way. No one is going to spot us any runs, and no one is going to make it easy on us. We still have to get out there and play good, solid baseball. For me it’s been different than any other year. In previous years you’re always trying to prove yourself. We’re still doing that and we’re still taking that attitude, but coming into this year there is a lot of recognition of what we have accomplished and what people think we can accomplish.
Are you recognized more in Charlottesville?
O’Connor: Yes, probably. I think when you play nine games televised on ESPN and everyone is into it, you’re more recognizable out there, which is fine and it’s nice for our program, and that’s what’s important.
Is it a little different this year now that you’re No. 2 in the rankings from last year where you were under the radar?
O’Connor: It definitely is. Going into last year there were not a lot of national expectations. But when you accomplish what we did last year and return with the kind of team we did this year, and after what guys did in the summer, it’s natural that there is going to be a lot of expectations. But we can’t worry about it; we just have to go out there and play hard and play good baseball and all of those things take care of themselves.
How does the recent weather affect your play?
O’Connor: It’s been frustrating, the fact that we haven’t gotten on our field, dealing with the tarps and shoveling snow off our field. This has been a unique winter here and in previous years we’ve been fortunate enough to get on our field every day and prepare for the season, and this year has been a little bit different. But they will be ready to go. Our players are excited to get down there and work on a grass field before we open up the season. Fortunately from a position player standpoint we have an experienced ball club and I believe they will handle it just fine.
What specifically has been done to combat this?
O’Connor: Mainly we’ve gone down to the turf football fields, which our facilities people have done a great job of plowing, and we’ve been able to do batting practice down there and play full scrimmage games with a wooden mound out on the field and the pitchers just play like it’s a normal game, other than that there’s snow everywhere and the background behind the hitters’ eyes is all white instead of a navy blue background. But we’ve gotten work done, but it hasn’t been on natural grass.
Is it nice to start of with some adversity and to have challenges right from the start?
O’Connor: We will meet adversity a number of times this year, and this is the first time we’re being challenged with what we’ve been given here weather wise. But once again, this is a pretty veteran group and they’ve handled it really well and stayed very positive. I expect them to respond well.
Do you think your experience at Notre Dame helps?
O’Connor: Fortunately, Kevin McMullan and I have spent a lot of time up north and in my nine years at Notre Dame we got accustomed to preparing teams for this situation. You have to get a little bit creative, which we’ve done, and I think that they’ll be ready to go.
What are your plans with Danny Hultzen and Dan Grovatt, in the field and on the mound?
O’Connor: Danny Hultzen is still going to play the field some. He’ll start on Friday in the opener and I imagine he’ll play first base in some game over the weekend. My plan is not to play him every game at first base, like I did last year when he wasn’t pitching. But spots here and there I’ll play him at first base because we have a lot of quality players now that play over there and I’d like to see him DHing more than playing first base but he will play a bit over there. Danny Grovatt has been a nice addition to our pitching staff. He has a really good arm, he’s left handed, he’s a candidate to come out of our bullpen to get some left handed hitters out, he’s really playable now. He’s done it great in practice and now he’s going to have to do it great in a game.
Who do you expect to come out of the bullpen?
O’Connor: Kevin Arico is our closer, I’m going to start Cody Winiarski in our number three spot, which will allow us to put Tyler Wilson in the role he was in last year. We have other guys that can step up in the middle like Neal Davis, Will Roberts and other pitchers that are capable of doing the job for us. But Kevin will be our closer and my plans are to leave Tyler Wilson in the setup up spot, at least in the early part of the season.
How are the new pitchers doing?
O’Connor: The new pitchers are doing really well; Cody Winiarski had a tremendous fall and he’s been doing really well in the pre-season. I think he’s going to pitch a lot of innings for us this year. Branden Kline has really progressed well; he was a little shaky in the fall, which is pretty typical for a freshman, but he’s really come on in the preseason and I think he’ll really add something for us on the mound. Whit Mayberry has a really good arm and a really good breaking ball that I think is going to contribute for us also.
At what point do you anticipate the discussion of last season and all the excitement of last year to stop?
O’Connor: We’ve moved on. I told the players when they got their rings (ACC Championship/College World Series) this fall that last year is over. I know it’s going to be talked about a lot and it’s interesting to talk about and it’s the greatest season in our school history and it’s important, but what happened last year was a great run at the end of the year by a team that finished sixth in the regular season in the ACC. This year we have to try to improve on that; our focus right now is East Carolina and the other teams and getting to the ACC. We’ll worry about what we can do at the end of the year when we get there.