By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The chartered bus sat idling outside Davenport Field, waiting to embark on its 385-mile journey back to Conway, S.C.
If its passengers felt a little disoriented, that’s understandable. Coastal Carolina’s baseball team is not accustomed to losing. Then again, not every day do the Chanticleers face an opponent ranked No. 1 nationally by Baseball America.
This week that team is UVa, and the Wahoos (35-9) showed why Tuesday night. Thanks to Phil Gosselin’s second-inning grand slam, Virginia never trailed in a 6-3 win over 10th-ranked Coastal before 2,260 fans at Davenport.
Brian O’Connor‘s 300th victory as the Cavaliers’ coach ended the Chanticleers’ 17-game winning streak. Coastal (36-6) hadn’t lost since March 28.
“We definitely were jacked up to go against those guys,” said UVa catcher John Hicks, who went 2 for 4 and threw out two baserunners.
“They’re a very good ball club, and you could definitely tell in the clubhouse before the game that we were ready to go, we were excited for it.”
For O’Connor, the win was special, and not because of the milestone he has reached in only seven seasons in Charlottesville.
“I thought we played a great baseball game,” O’Connor said. “Phil Gosselin stepped up in the second inning and hit that ball in the seats and gave us a lot of momentum, and Branden Kline just had a spectacular start, the best start in his young career. I think we’re going to see a lot more of that over the next couple of years.”
The Boston Red Sox selected Kline in the sixth round of last year’s Major League Baseball draft, but the 6-3 right-hander from Frederick, Md., chose to put his pro career on hold and enrolled at UVa.
“I love it here,” Kline said.
O’Connor has brought the immensely talented freshman along slowly, using Kline mainly in relief during weekend series. With Coastal in town, this was not a typical midweek start, and O’Connor was eager to see how Kline would fare against such competition.
The skipper liked what he saw. Kline pitched like a veteran, allowing one earned run, striking out four and walking only one in five innings.
“I wanted to see what he was capable of doing in a start against a top-10 team, and he sure shined,” O’Connor said. “He did exactly what we needed him to do, and it gives me a lot of encouragement that he’s somebody that, come tournament time, if we need to, we can call upon him.”
Kline said: “I knew that [the Chanticleers] loved to swing the bat, so I was just trying to keep the ball down in the zone, so eventually when I make a mistake, either there won’t be that many people on base, or I’ll get lucky and they’ll hit it to one of my guys.”
The game turned in the bottom of the second. Coastal starter Jim Birmingham retired Jarrett Parker and John Barr, but Hicks and Kenny Swab followed with singles. Stephen Bruno walked to load the bases, and up came Gosselin.
He entered the game with 12 home runs in three seasons as a Cavalier. He left with 13 after hammering a bases-clearing shot into the left-field bleachers. And just like that, it was 4-0.
The grand slam “gave us some separation,” O’Connor said, and it allowed Kline “to go out there and attack the strike zone and make his pitches and not have to be so fine and feel like if you give up one run, it’s that big of a deal.”
That all of his team’s offense in that inning came with two outs delighted O’Connor.
“Our team has done that a lot this year, where we have started rallies with two outs and nobody on and have capitalized on them,” he said. “That’s just another great quality I think that this club has, where the first guys get out in an inning and the guys don’t pack it in … That’s something special. And that was why we won the game, really.”
UVa’s pitchers played key roles, too. Tyler Wilson relieved Kline in the sixth and struck out four in three innings. In the ninth, closer Kevin Arico retired Coastal in order.
“Tyler Wilson’s a veteran,” O’Connor said. “He’s been in a lot of big ball games for us in his career. He’s going to be in a lot bigger ones from here moving forward. The kid’s got great poise, he’s got great stuff. If things go bad around him, he doesn’t let it affect him. He keeps going out there and making his pitches. And when you do that and you have the kind of stuff he does, you’ve got a high chance of being successful.”
Gosselin, Hicks and Swab had two hits apiece for UVa, which hosts Georgetown at 6 p.m. Wednesday. No. 1 catcher Franco Valdes is recovering from knee surgery — the senior from Miami is expected back for the May 14-16 series against North Carolina at Davenport — but his absence hasn’t hurt the ‘Hoos, who have won six straight.
“Next year when we have John Hicks and Kenny Swab, and Franco’s gone, that’s a pretty good tandem there behind the plate,” O’Connor said.
“Johnny’s doing a great job of running a game, handling the pitching staff … He’s got a very accurate arm, and since he’s been playing every day behind the plate, I think his bat’s really come along too. He’s showing what he can do as the everyday catcher.”
Scott Woodward can attest to the accuracy of Hicks’ arm. Coastal’s third baseman had been successful on 40 of his 44 steal attempts this season before Tuesday night. But when Woodward tried to steal second in the third inning, Hicks threw him out.
Hicks, a junior, has played several positions during his college career. At Goochland High School, however, he was a full-time catcher, and that’s home to him.
“It’s fun,” Hicks said. “When you out there every day catching, it helps you get more and more reps, and the more reps you get, the more comfortable you get.
“I definitely feel like I bring a little bit more intensity when I’m behind the plate. I don’t necessarily try to, but I feel more comfortable back there, because I’ve been playing there my whole life.”