By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The sun rose as usual Thursday morning, about eight hours after UVa’s baseball team returned home from a disastrous trip to Lexington.
The sting of a 12-3 loss to Virginia Military Institute may linger, but life goes on for Brian O’Connor‘s team.
“We’ll be fine,” O’Connor said Thursday afternoon. “We’ve lost midweek games before. There’s absolutely no shame in losing to VMI. They showed last night what kind of ball club they have, and anything can happen on a particular night in baseball.”
Indeed, in other games Wednesday night, Florida State lost to Jacksonville, Clemson lost to Western Carolina, North Carolina lost to Coastal Carolina, Wake Forest lost to Elon, and N.C. State lost to UNC Wilmington.
“It doesn’t make me feel any better, because losing’s not any fun, but it just puts it in perspective,” O’Connor said. “You can’t win them all. Obviously we didn’t play a very good baseball game [at VMI] and didn’t win. But that happens all over the country. All that matters is how you respond to it. Bottom line. And this team last year and this year so far has always responded to that.”
Asked how the VMI loss will affect his players, O’Connor said, “I’ve never really believed in one game creating motivation for the next game or the next series, just because we play so many games. And I’ve tried to not allow our players to get real emotional from one game to another, because it’s such a long haul. One game, one weekend, can’t make the difference in your season.”
That said, this is a huge weekend for the Wahoos, and everyone associated with the program acknowledges as much. Virginia (10-5 ACC, 27-8 overall) hosts Virginia Tech (8-7, 24-11) in a three-game series at Davenport Field.
The teams are scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Friday, at 4 p.m. Saturday and at 1 p.m. Sunday.
In the latest National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll, the ‘Hoos are No. 1. The Hokies are No. 29.
“It is partly just another series, but the players are bright kids, and it means a lot to them, and they understand what’s at stake,” O’Connor said.
“It is a very key series, not only for league play, but it’s your in-state rival. So there’s a lot more on it. Saying that, you can’t put added pressure on yourself, because you just can’t play the game that way. But they understand there’s a lot at stake, and they want to go out and prove it on the field.”
Heading into their series last year, UVa had won 12 games in a row over Tech, but the streak ended in Blacksburg. The Hokies won the first game 5-4 in 10 innings and the second 9-8 before Virginia rallied to take the series finale, 6-4.
A week later, in Durham, N.C., the ‘Hoos won the ACC tournament, and they went on to reach the College World Series.
For Virginia Tech, there was no postseason in 2009. The Hokies failed to qualify for the ACC tournament and then did not receive an invitation to the NCAAs.
That’s not likely to be the case this year.
“I said it from the start of the season … I told everybody that I thought Virginia Tech would be right in the mix,” O’Connor said. “They have a veteran team, a lot of guys that have had a lot of playing time the last couple of years, and you get rewarded for that when the players then get older.”
The Hokies’ standouts include junior right-fielder Austin Wates (.416) and junior right-hander Jesse Hahn (5-2, 2.28 ERA).
“They got two first-round draft choices on their team in Austin Wates and Jesse Hahn,” O’Connor said. “Who has that? There’s not many college baseball programs that have that.”
Tech coach Pete Hughes has made Hahn his Sunday starter. UVa’s ace is Danny Hultzen, and he gets the ball on Friday nights.
A 6-3 left-hander who was the ACC freshman of the year in 2009, Hultzen is 5-1 this season, with a 2.04 ERA.
“Obviously he was very talented last year,” O’Connor said. “He was our Friday night starter as a true freshman. But he’s even better this year. His velocity’s better consistently, his ability to pitch deeper into games is better, and he understands when he needs to eat up an inning late for us to save our bullpen.”
Official attendance for UVa’s three-game series with Georgia Tech at Davenport last weekend was 12,579, a school record. That mark may fall this weekend.
This is O’Connor’s seventh season at Virginia, and his team has drawn well at home for most of his tenure. This year, however, fans have “taken it to a new height,” he said.
“The community embracing our baseball program has a lot to do with our success. It’s a very, very key component in having a top-flight college baseball program.
“Recruits want to go to places where they can play in front of thousands of people. It’s an exciting environment to play in, and our community has had a lot to do with that.”