By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — To Franco Valdes, it seems like only yesterday that he wore the baseball uniform of Monsignor Pace High and played his baseball games in the warm Miami sun. Now he’s in the twilight of his career at UVa.
“The years here definitely flew by,” Valdes said, “but they’ve been great.”
For much of this season, though, he’s had to live with constant pain. In late winter he hurt his left knee, the same one on which he had surgery in 2008. The injury didn’t keep Valdes out of the lineup, but it forced Virginia coach Brian O’Connor to limit the 5-11, 205-pound catcher to two games a week, and never back-to-back appearances.
That in turn affected his batting stroke. Valdes, who hit .292 with six home runs as a junior, is batting only .226, with one homer, for UVa (12-6 ACC, 31-9 overall) this season.
“It’s hard to be a consistent hitter when you’re not in there the majority of the time, and the whole year he’s only played on Fridays and Sundays,” O’Connor said.
Valdes said: “It’s tough, because you sit down Monday through Thursday and do nothing. Then you go out there and face a Friday night [pitcher].”
He played a starring role in the Wahoos’ magical run to the College World Series in 2009, and a healthy No. 33 would be a huge asset this postseason. So Valdes had arthroscopic surgery April 19 to repair his knee.
He’s not expected back this month, which means he’ll miss second-ranked UVa’s series at ACC rival Maryland this weekend. But O’Connor hopes to have Valdes back for the pivotal series with North Carolina at Davenport Field on May 14-16, if not earlier.
Valdes said he’s looking forward to playing without pain in his knee.
“I really am,” he said two days after his operation. “It’s been a few months now playing on it. Feels good now.”
As a 12th-grader, Valdes was picked by Detroit in the 15th round of the major-league draft. He opted to enroll at Broward Community College in Miami, from which he transferred to UVa after his freshman year.
His impact on O’Connor’s program was immediate. As a sophomore in 2008, Valdes started 28 of the team’s 30 conference games and, through the force of his irrepressible personality, contributed in myriad ways.
“The guy’s a leader,” O’Connor said. “He takes charge of that pitching staff, and he’s just an exciting, full-of-energy player. You just love the emotion that he brings to the park every day. He’s very charismatic.”
Valdes, who’s majoring in Spanish and minoring in urban planning, said he has no regrets about not turning pro out of high school. His time at UVa has helped him grow as a person and as a player, he said. The Cavaliers have benefited too.
“Franco Valdes has brought something really special to our program the last three years,” O’Connor said. “He’s just got an infectious personality. He’s brought an excitement level and an energy level with our club with how he handles our pitchers behind the plate.
“He’s like a pepper pot back there. He’s just full of energy. He hustles. He blocks every ball in the dirt. He runs our pitching staff so well. He just brings a ton of value to our club.”
Valdes was never more valuable than during the 2009 postseason. First, after helping UVa win the ACC title in Durham, N.C., he was named to the all-tournament team.
Then came the Cavaliers’ trip to Irvine, Calif., for the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament. He went 5 for 11 in Irvine and was named the regional’s most outstanding player.
From Irvine, the ‘Hoos advanced to Oxford, Miss. There, in the Super Regional against Ole Miss, Valdes had three RBI hits. Finally, at the College World Series, he hit .333.
In all, Valdes batted .342, with a team-high nine RBI and six extra-base hits, in the NCAA tourney.
“He lifts his game up to a different level at the most important times,” O’Connor said. “He’s got a special ability to do that, and each of the last two years at the end of the year he’s been at his best, and we’re planning on that coming out of him again.”
UVa played nine games in the 2009 NCAA tournament. Valdes caught every inning of every one of those games.
A year later, O’Connor has three good options at catcher — Valdes, sophomore John Hicks and junior Kenny Swab — so the entire load might not fall on one player this postseason.
“That’s up to Coach,” Valdes said.
If needed, he’ll be ready. With two good knees, Valdes hopes.