By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — They’re everywhere you look at Davenport Field these days: down the first-base line, down the third-base line, in the left-field bleachers, in the grandstand, on the concourse.
Fans. Lots and lots of fans.
“Who would have ever thought that we’d draw over 12,000 people for a baseball weekend in Charlottesville?” UVa coach Brian O’Connor said Sunday, marveling at the turnout.
Less than a month ago, it was news when a three-game series with Boston College at Davenport drew 9,642, a record for the venue. A week later, the single-game mark at Davenport fell when 3,540 showed up for a Saturday game against Clemson.
So with demand rising and a visit from ACC power Georgia Tech looming, UVa officials acted. About 680 seats were added down the first-base line early this month, raising the stadium’s capacity to 4,219.
The opener of the three-game series with the Yellow Jackets, ranked No. 2 by Baseball America, drew 4,155, and fans saw the fourth-ranked Wahoos rally to win 7-4 on Friday night.
That attendance record didn’t last long. Game 2 attracted a sellout crowd of 4,219 that watched Georgia Tech erase a 5-0 deficit and win 9-7 on Saturday.
The Jackets’ victory added to the drama surrounding the series finale, and the UVa faithful were not disappointed. On a picturesque afternoon, the ‘Hoos romped 9-1 before 4,205 on Sunday.
Total attendance for the series: 12,579.
“That shows you how much this place has grown, this program has grown,” senior shortstop Tyler Cannon said. “It’s great to have this many people supporting you.”
“Having 12,000 fans on a weekend is just amazing,” junior pitcher Tyler Wilson said. “We’re so excited to see people coming out and watching us play. I think the new stadium expansion was a great idea. Hopefully we can keep expanding, if possible.”
This is O’Connor’s seventh season at UVa, and the growth of his program has been remarkable. Under O’Connor, the Cavaliers are 291-110-1, and they’ll almost certainly make a seventh consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament.
A season ago, Virginia advanced to the College World Series for the first time in school history. Then, in the fall, work began on a $4.5 million enhancement project at Davenport Field.
“There’s a lot of people that have put a lot of great work into building this baseball program,” O’Connor said, “a lot of players, obviously, and coaches and our administration, and now our fans have responded.
“It’s very, very exciting. You can see the smile on my face … It’s created an unbelievable environment out here. I think everybody enjoys coming out here. Next weekend we need the same.”
A season ago in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech took two of three games from UVa. The series returns to Charlottesville this year, and the rivals will play three games at Davenport next weekend: Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m.
Will another 12,000 turn out to see the ‘Hoos (10-5 ACC, 27-7 overall) battle the 25th-ranked Hokies (8-7, 23-11)?
“I hope so,” Wilson said. “We’re glad to have to them out there, and every person helps to add to that 10th man.”
Georgia Tech entered the finale game of the series with an astounding 69 home runs after belting two on Friday and two more on Saturday.
The Jackets got No. 70 on Sunday — a shot by Derek Dietrich over the right-field wall in the sixth inning — but that was the only blemish on a splendid day for UVa’s pitching staff.
Starter Cody Winiarski (4-0) scattered five hits before giving way to Wilson with one out and a runner on first in the sixth inning. Wilson struck out Cole Leonida and then, after allowing a single to Matt Skole, fanned Chase Burnette to end the threat.
In the seventh, Wilson retired the Jackets in order. In the eighth, after the first two batters reached, Wilson struck out the next three.
“Tyler Wilson, I think, is back,” O’Connor said. “He had a little tough time down at N.C. State, a couple mechanical things. He and [pitching coach Karl] Kuhn have worked those out, and he’s throwing the ball like he’s capable of. His velocity is good, his slider’s really good, and he’s got a lot of confidence out there.”
Closer Kevin Arico took over in the ninth, with an eight-run lead, and the Jackets went quietly.
“To hold Georgia Tech to one run is one heck of an accomplishment,” O’Connor said. “When [a team is] hitting over 60 home runs like they have, you’re just constantly on the edge of your seat playing them, because they’re one swing away, and a three-run home run away, from being right back in the ball game.
“That’s a testament to our pitching. Cody Winiarski and Wilson and Arico all went out there and charged the mound and made the pitches today that we needed to.”
Georgia Tech finished with seven hits, to 12 for Virginia. Four Cavaliers had two hits apiece: second baseman Phil Gosselin, center-fielder Jarrett Parker, catcher Franco Valdes and left-fielder John Barr. Moreover, freshman designated hitter Stephen Bruno extended his hitting streak to 14 games with a two-run single in the eighth.
Gosselin, hitless in the first two games of the series, also had three RBI on Sunday.
“Today we did capitalize on most of our opportunities offensively, and [Tech] didn’t, and that’s a lot of times what it’s about,” O’Connor said. “Do you take advantage of those runners in scoring position when you have them?
“And our pitchers rose up and made the big pitches when we needed to, and we didn’t do it yesterday. They’re not going to do it all the time, but the important thing is, this team showed again its resiliency and its ability to bounce back after difficult losses. That’s an incredible quality to have in a baseball team. That’s what you want, and I think we’re going to reap the benefits of that the rest of the season.”