By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On many Division I baseball teams, they would be full-time starters. In other years, they would have been full-time starters for UVa. But when Stephen Bruno, Chris Taylor and Reed Gragnani enrolled at the University last year, they walked into an unusual situation.
From the team that advanced to the College World Series in 2009, the Cavaliers lost not a single starting position player. And that experience is a big reason why Virginia figures to enter the NCAA tournament as one of the top seeds.
Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, UVa (21-6 ACC, 43-9 overall) is ranked No. 1 nationally by Baseball America.
“Coming in, I knew it was going to be tough to earn playing time,” said Taylor, the Group AAA player of the year as a shortstop at Virginia Beach’s Cox High in 2009.
Bruno, who played shortstop at Gloucester Catholic in New Jersey, and Gragnani, who played shortstop at Mills Godwin High in the Richmond area, had no illusions, either.
“I think I can speak for all us,” Gragnani said. “We’re looking for opportunities to come in and help the team. We understand our roles.”
Cavaliers skipper Brian O’Connor has played five freshmen this season. Two are pitchers: Branden Kline (45 innings) and Whit Mayberry (24 innings). Bruno has appeared in 32 games, Gragnani in 25 and Taylor in 24.
Among them, they’ve made 50 starts and been used at designated hitter, first base, second, third and shortstop. Most of those starts have come in midweek games, though Bruno has seen extended duty at DH in some ACC series.
“I think for all of them, the team having success is the No. 1 most important thing,” O’Connor said. “But also, too, they’ve all in their own ways made serious contributions to our success this year.
“We would not be where we are right now in this season without the contributions that all three of them have made. No question about that. They’ve all three gotten big, key, huge hits.”
Bruno and Gragnani are each hitting .400. Taylor is batting .306. Bruno had a 15-game hitting streak in the middle of the season.
“I came in here with really no expectations,” Bruno said. “I knew that we had a great team and it was going to be tough to work my way in the lineup. So I tried really hard to be my best and fulfill any opportunity that I had.
“I know next year’s going to be a fight as well. I’m just going to work every day to get better, and whatever happens, happens. But my goal obviously is to become a starter in the near future, and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.”
Had Tyler Cannon opted to turn pro last year, there would have been more opportunities for the freshman infielders this season. But with Cannon back at shortstop, Steven Proscia back at third base, and Phil Gosselin and Keith Werman returning to split time at second, UVa’s infield rotation was all but set.
In the outfield, Gosselin, Jarrett Parker and Dan Grovatt returned, along with John Barr and David Coleman.
“I think that probably has had a lot to do with our success this year, too,” Taylor said. “We have a veteran team, and they’ve really helped lead us to where we are. I’ve been real happy with how it’s turned out.
“Although I’d like to be playing every day, it’s also good to learn from the veteran players. And I think the level of competition is so high that it pushes you to work even harder, and it’s made me that much better of a player.”
O’Connor said: “Quite frankly, there’s a real advantage for those three kids, the fact that Proscia and Cannon and Werman and Gosselin are here. They’re provided an unbelievable opportunity to learn from some great players. So there’s some true value in that.”
Back when Gragnani, Taylor and Bruno committed to UVa, it seemed unlikely that Cannon would still be around in 2010. Moreover, Proscia had yet to choose between college and a pro career.
“The challenging thing is, when you recruit kids, you just don’t know what’s going to happen with the professional draft,” O’Connor said, “so you’re having to forecast so much ahead of time. But you get the best possible players. They understand that it’s going to be competitive.”
Bruno said: “It’s just been a thrill so far. It’s been very impressive the things that I’ve learned from other players, veteran players. It keeps you humble a little bit. In high school, you’re the star of the team and everything, so it’s been a very humbling experience.”
With Cannon nearing the end of his college career, and several of the team’s top juniors likely to turn pro, 2011 figures to offer more opportunities for Gragnani, Bruno and Taylor.
“They’ll come into next year as veteran players,” O’Connor said, “ready to improve and ready to be more consistent and step into bigger roles. There’s no question that those three guys are going to be key components to our future success.”
Look for Bruno and Taylor on the left side of the infield. Gragnani could play second, third or even first, O’Connor said. And who knows? One or more of them might play in the outfield at times.
“I never rule that out, because when you recruit guys like that, you recruit them because they’re great athletes, and they can move,” O’Connor said. “And I know that they’re not hung up on what exact position they play. There are players all over the big leagues that in college played first base, but now they’re playing a different position. They’re into what it takes to get our best team on the field.”
Taylor could have been speaking for his classmates when he answered a question about the 2011 season.
“I’ll play wherever the team needs me to play to help us win,” Taylor said. “In high school I played shortstop, but the coaches have done a good job playing us at a lot of different places, so we feel comfortable there.”
Virginia’s three-game series with 14th-ranked Miami (19-8, 38-13) starts Thursday night in Coral Gables, Fla.