Q&A with Brian O'Connor
Head coach Brian O’Connor and the Virginia baseball team begin postseason play Wednesday in the ACC Tournament, where the Cavaliers have earned the No. 1 overall seed for just the second time in program history. UVa opens the tournament at noon against eighth-seeded Boston College. O’Connor recently sat down with VirginiaSports.com to chat about the season so far and the upcoming conference championship.
Question: Have you seen Newbridge Bank Park in Greensboro? What do you think of it?
O’Connor: I have not seen the park in Greensboro. I have heard it’s a beautiful ballpark. We are looking forward to coming down there and playing. It’s a short drive for our fans so I know they are looking forward to it. I have heard it’s a shorter ballpark but the level of pitching in this league can negate some of that. You have some really great arms and really great pitchers in this league. I can tell you from our standpoint, we won’t change the way we play based on the dimensions of the park. I’ve heard it’s beautiful and we are looking forward to playing there.
Question: Do you like that you start right away with a day game on Wednesday? You have been used to playing at night.
O’Connor: Last year I think we played every one of our games at night until the title game. That is the schedule the conference gave us, and I’m happy with it. I am glad we are starting the tournament off and playing the first ball game. I am fine with it. We are the last practice on Tuesday and then we will start the tournament off in game one. I would rather play during the day. A lot of times if you’re the last game, there is a good chance you’re not starting until 9 or 9:30 at night. I think the schedule is great.
Question: Do the time slots give you any advantages?
O’Connor: We play the noon game on Saturday and that is one of the advantages of being the No. 1 seed. You play the noon game and have the maximum rest of the potential title game on Sunday. I like it that we play at noon, 4 p.m., have a day off, then play at noon.
Question: And what about the day off coming on Friday? A good time for rest?
O’Connor: I think so. From a relief-pitching standpoint, you have two games then a day to recuperate if you need those guys again on Saturday and Sunday. I think from that standpoint it is helpful. You never know – I have never really believed in gaining an advantage based on what time you play or when your day off is, things like that. Look at last year. We didn’t play until the sixth game of the tournament, we played all night games, and we won the championship. If you had your choice, sure. But I don’t know with the level of talent at this tournament if it truly helps you win the tournament.
Question: Have you thought about who you might throw if you advance to Sunday?
O’Connor: We will see how it plays out as we move along. There was some thinking to why I started Branden Kline in game one at Miami. I think he is great option to potentially start an ACC championship game, a fourth game in a regional, something like that. That is part of the reason I wanted to give him that experience, to prepare him for something like that. I think he is a great option but we will use him out of the bullpen as we need to this week to have a chance to play for the title, and we will assess at that time. If it works out I would imagine he would be the guy I would be looking at on Sunday.
Do you feel confident you will be a top-eight national seed?
Question: I don’t know that anything is ever set in stone, or you think that you have something figured out and all of a sudden you are shocked. We have learned that in the past. You just never take anything for granted and you can never leave anything in somebody else’s hands. I do think winning the series down at Miami did a lot because being the No. 1 overall seed this season did a lot for us. I would be shocked, no matter what happens in Greensboro, if we were not a top-eight national seed. I think we have earned that the entire season. We lost one series the entire year and have been ranked in the top-four all year long, one of the top two RPIs in the country. I don’t know what else you have to do to be a national seed; I imagine that we would be.
Question: Can you talk about Jarrett Parker’s contributions this season?
O’Connor: Jarrett Parker has done a really good job moving to the middle of the lineup was an adjustment and he’s done a good job with that and what people have tried to do to him. I’ve said it all year long, a big key to our success is Jarrett Parker and as of the last three, four weeks, Parker has really turned it up a notch. I’m hoping he will be playing his best baseball moving forward and I think that he will.
Question: What about from a defensive standpoint?
O’Connor: He is a special center fielder. The range that he has is as good as I have ever coached. He has great speeds and makes really good decisions out there. He has made some diving catches that have changed games for us. When you got a guy like that out there roaming centerfield, and you have the guys that play up the middle for us, and our catching – if you want to build a really strong college baseball team, you want to be strong in those areas. I think that is a big reason why we have a special club this year.
Question: Who will see time behind the plate for most of the postseason?
O’Connor: Franco Valdes and John Hicks primarily have been doing the catching for us; Kenny Swab is a good third option. Franco has been back catching the last few weekends. I know they are both capable – both Franco and John. A lot of it probably depends on if we are going to face a right-handed starter. Last year coming into this time, Franco was going to be our catcher every day. That will not be the case as we go into this postseason. It’s going to be more based on who our opponent is and what pitcher we are facing. It’s probably going to be a mix – probably close to 50/50 with Franco and John.
Question: Can you talk about Danny Hultzen and him maybe trying to break out of a tough stretch the past two weeks?
O’Connor: Everybody goes through it at some point. This kid is so talented, he can turn it around in a heartbeat. The amazing thing about it is his command hasn’t’ been very good but it both cases, he has given us a chance to win. He didn’t pitch great against North Carolina but he only gave up one run in five innings. He didn’t pitch well and Miami, but we still won the ball game. That speaks to the level of stuff this kid has, that he might have an off outing, but he has still given his team a chance to beat North Carolina and Miami. The command of his pitches, mechanically, he needs to clean himself up a little bit. He is a talented kid who can make adjustments and hopefully we see him back in his true form this Saturday.
Question: Can you talk about Phil Gosselin and him moving from second base to left field and his contributions there?
O’Connor: He has taken it fine. Phil and I had a conversation after last season about not playing second base as much. He is a complete team player. This guy has been very, very unselfish. He has told me all along, ever since last year when I went to him toward the end of the season and said I was going to start playing him in left field. He has said all along it has never changed, ‘Coach, whatever I can do to help the team win is what I want to do.’ He has been fine with that. He has turned himself into a pretty darn good left fielder, and is also a great second baseman. What has made him have a great year is consistency. This guy has been, from an offensive standpoint, the model of consistency. He comes out every day and puts up quality at-bats. I think Phil Gosselin is one of the best, if not that the best, hitters that we have coached here in seven years. He is a special player.
Question: And John Hicks maybe has been struggling a bit, but you’ve stuck with him.
O’Connor: John Hicks is a really talented player. He is very athletic. He went through a tough spell there, as all of them do at some point, but I knew he would climb himself out of it. This kid is too talented. He made some adjustments he needed to make. Over the last three weeks or so he has really been a hot bat for us. He is absolutely going to be a key hitter for us the remainder of the way. I have just always prescribed to the philosophy. If you have players that you really believe in and they have the talent, you have to stick with them. If you stick with them, it is going to pay dividends at the most important time.