By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The ACC’s hottest baseball team would love to keep playing, love to keep battering opposing pitchers, love to start pursuing a new target: 50 victories.
Alas, that’s not an option for Virginia, which, like it or not, is about to take an extended break. Final exams start this week, and the nation’s top-ranked team won’t play again until May 14, when North Carolina comes to town for the opener of a three-game series.
The Cavaliers head into finals on an 11-game winning streak after whipping Virginia Commonwealth University 10-5 before 2,197 fans Tuesday night at Davenport Field.
In each of the past five games, the Wahoos (40-9) have scored at least 10 runs.
“I think we’re on a pretty good roll, and everybody’s feeling good — on the mound, at the plate, everywhere — so we’d like to keep playing,” junior Phil Gosselin said. “But it’s just a part of being a student-athlete. You gotta take care of the final exams, do all that. We’ll be able to practice and [play] intrasquad and everything to keep sharp, so we’ll be fine.”
Gosselin leads off for the ‘Hoos, and his home run to left-center in the first inning gave them a 1-0 lead. At the end of the inning, it was 3-0, but the Rams (23-20-1) rallied for four runs in the second off UVa starter Branden Kline — all with two outs.
Not to worry. Jarrett Parker’s two-run homer in the third put the Cavaliers back on top, 5-4, and they scored four more times in the fourth.
The late innings lacked suspense as UVa methodically secured another victory. This is the sixth time in Brian O’Connor‘s seven seasons as Virginia’s coach that his team has won at least 40 games. It’s also the earliest the ‘Hoos have reached that milestone.
“It’s very, very rare in college baseball to have 40 wins before you have 10 losses,” O’Connor said. “I just think it speaks to the consistency that this club has played with all year long. Only having dropped one series at this point in the season” — to N.C. State in early April — “is pretty darn impressive. We’ve bounced back every time that we’ve suffered a loss, and this team’s got some special qualities.
“It’s a great feat. But now we go through this final-exam phase, where the players need to do the job on their exams. It’s the No. 1 reason why they’re here: to get a great education and do well academically. And then when we come out of these exams, we’ll face a tough North Carolina squad, and hopefully we can continue to play this kind of baseball coming out of the exam period.”
In the longest appearance of his college career, Kline (4-0) worked six innings and earned the victory. He almost didn’t make it out of the second. The 6-3 freshman retired the Rams’ first two batters, then surrendered four runs, the first coming on a homer by Brent Mikionis.
After finally recording the third out, Kline headed to the dugout, expecting to hear that his night was over. Instead, he said, the coaches told him this:
“If the next guy gets on base, you’re done. You have one more batter to prove yourself and turn this thing around.”
Kline didn’t squander his opportunity. He retired VCU in order in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth.
“Other than the second inning, he was very dominant in this game,” O’Connor said.
The Cavaliers’ skipper hopes Kline learned a valuable lesson, and “that is, the pace at which he works needs to be faster so he’s in control of the game,” O’Connor said.
“For whatever reason, that second inning, he slowed down his pace, he was very methodical with what he was doing, and it just was not successful for him. But you saw him go back out there in the third inning and work very fast, get the ball, go right on the rubber and go right back at them. And the kid’s a talented pitcher.”
The scorecard shows that the right-handed Kline retired the final 13 batters he faced. Still, he said, “I could definitely tell I didn’t have my stuff today. And it was like the first time I’ve ever really known that, not having my stuff, after that second inning, going out in the third and posting a zero, that even on days when you don’t have anything, you can try to fight through it.
“And the good thing was, our offense put a 10-spot up there, so I was able to make some mistakes and get away with it.”
Gosselin, Parker and Steven Proscia each had two hits for UVa, which totaled 11 against three VCU pitchers. Parker, Virginia’s career leader in triples, had his 16th Tuesday night in addition to his seventh homer of the season. He also made a spectacular diving catch in center field to rob Joe Van Meter of an extra-base hit in the ninth.
Parker, an All-American as a sophomore last year, struggled at the plate early this season, but he heads into finals on a tear.
“The emergence of Jarrett Parker as of late, I think, has really made a difference in our lineup, and I think he’s going to be a really key cog to that lineup the rest of the way,” O’Connor said.
“He just looks more comfortable up there. He’s more aggressive swinging the bat. I don’t know that he’s ever been in a slump. He’s never been below .300. The problem with a guy like that is the expectations are so high, not only from the outside, but also the expectations that he puts on himself and that the coaches put on him. That goes with the territory when you’re a great, marquee player. But I knew there would be a point that he would really start to put it together.”
Gosselin said: “Jarrett’s huge for us. When he’s hitting the ball like that, he takes us to another level.”
With a .345 batting average, UVa leads the ACC. Of the position players who started against VCU, only John Hicks (.295) is hitting below .300, but the sophomore catcher has 16 doubles and five homers.
“There’s a lot of guys in our lineup that are having a lot of success swinging the bat,” O’Connor said. “It’s not just one or two players. It’s throughout the entire lineup.”
Gosselin said: “It’s definitely contagious. One guy gets a hit, he hits the ball hard, and the next guy can’t wait to get up to the plate and do the same thing. Then the next guy, and it kind of snowballs in a good way.”