By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tougher tests await Brian O’Connor‘s club — starting this weekend, in all likelihood — but UVa avoided any missteps in its first game since ascending to the top spot in Baseball America’s rankings.
“A win’s a win, and I’ll take it,” O’Connor said Wednesday evening after Virginia beat George Washington 5-2 before 1,567 hardy fans at Davenport Field.
The Colonials (0-4) have not started the season well, but a win over No. 1 UVa would have overshadowed their troubles. The Cavaliers (3-1) can expect that to be the case with virtually every opponent they face.
“I think there’s going to be a target on our back,” senior pitcher Neal Davis said. “Teams are going to want to try to come in here and beat us.”
O’Connor said: “I know if we went on the road to play the No. 1-ranked team in the country, we’d look forward to that opportunity. It creates a little bit bigger bull’s eye on your back, but I think people know we’ve got a good program, and they know what they’re in for when they play us.”
After UVa took two of three games on opening weekend from then-No. 18 East Carolina in Greenville, N.C. — and Texas went 1-2 versus New Mexico — Baseball America dropped the Longhorns and elevated the Wahoos from No. 2 to No. 1 on Monday.
In 2009, the ‘Hoos advanced to the College World Series for the first time in school history, and now they have their first No. 1 ranking in baseball.
“It’s a heck of an accomplishment,” Davis said. “It’s a tribute to what we’ve done in this program in the past, and it’s something to be very proud of, especially for me as a fourth-year. It’s great to be able to say throughout your entire life that you were on the No. 1 team in the nation.”
O’Connor called the ranking “a great honor” but made it clear that he’s ready to focus on other things.
“I addressed it with the team yesterday,” O’Connor said, “and I told them, ‘Congratulations. We all aspire to be the best, and you all aspire to be No. 1 no matter what it is you do, and it’s a great accomplishment.’
“But I told them that yesterday was the last day that I was ever going to address rankings again the rest of the year. You can’t go any higher than No. 1, and so I addressed it for the last time of the year, and we’ll move on. But [the ranking] doesn’t change the game. This group of young men that we have is very, very talented, but they’re also a humble group that is hungry and will do what it takes to win.”
The players, junior left-fielder Phil Gosselin said, are taking “the same approach every day: Come here ready to play. We’re going to grind out games and do whatever we can to win ball games and let the rest take care of itself.”
Against GW, Gosselin said, UVa “definitely wanted to come out and start the home season with a win and get things rolling going into the weekend.”
The game was the Cavaliers’ first at Davenport since May 12, when they beat VCU 4-1. As recently as Monday, it appeared the GW game might have to be moved to Newport News, but UVa’s sports turf manager, Jesse Pritchard, and his crew worked overtime to remove snow, dry the field and make sure the home opener proceeded as scheduled.
“Our grounds crew did an incredible job of getting it ready,” O’Connor said. “It’s amazing that we’re playing baseball here in Charlottesville, and I don’t know if they are anywhere else in the state. It’s a tribute to the job they do every day out on that field.”
Sophomore right-hander Will Roberts went 5 2/3 innings and got the win for the ‘Hoos.
“I would have loved to have seen him finish that sixth inning, but he hit his pitch count, and we needed to take him out of the ball game,” O’Connor said. “But I thought he was in pretty good control. Other than a couple of the walks, I thought he pitched a really nice ball game.”
The only Cavalier with more than one hit was Gosselin, who went 3 for 5. UVa scored one run in the third and four runs in the fourth. GW answered with two runs off Roberts in the sixth, and O’Connor turned to first-year right-hander Whit Mayberry, who allowed one hit and struck out two in 1 1/3 innings.
“He’s got a lot of moxie for a young freshman,” O’Connor said. “He’s got talent, and I think he’s going to do really good things for us this year. And so with him and Corey Hunt and some other guys, I’m trying to get them out there as much as possible and get them as much experience as they can possibly get.”
Hunt, a junior right-hander, started the eighth for the UVa and immediately encountered trouble, giving up back-to-back singles to open the inning. In came Davis, a 6-6 left-hander from Baltimore.
Davis retired two batters, then handed the ball to closer Kevin Arico, who struck out Tyler McCarthy to quell GW’s threat.
“When you’re up 5-0, you’d like to extend [the lead] a little more,” Gosselin said, “but [GW] did a good job coming back, and our bullpen did a great job keeping it right there for the win.”
It was the third appearance of the season for Davis, who has yet to allow a run. As a sophomore in 2008, such performances were routine for him, but shoulder problems marred his junior season.
“I think Neal Davis is really determined to have a great year in his final season, and he’s pitched great all three times that he’s been out there,” O’Connor said. “He’s going to be a valuable left-handed pitcher for us out of our bullpen. We don’t have many left-handers down there, and he’s the veteran, and he’s going to need to continue to do the job for us.”
Next up for UVa is a three-game series with Rhode Island, starting Friday at Davenport Field. The Rams are 0-3, but their losses were to Mississippi State in Starkville last weekend, and they’re coming off a season in which they 37-20-1.
“Rhode Island was considered the giant-killer last year,” O’Connor said. “They went to a lot of top programs and knocked them off in their own ball parks.”
The Rams figure to be loose as they try to slay another giant this weekend. The ‘Hoos have more to lose, but Gosselin doesn’t sense much pressure on the team.
“The guys are all playing loose and just treating it as an honor to be ranked No. 1,” Gosselin said. “And then once we strap it on, we forget about that and just play as hard as we always have.”