Sept. 22, 2010

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Opening day is still months away, but baseball returns to Davenport Field on Friday night.

The occasion? An exhibition game between UVa and the Ontario Blue Jays. It starts at 6 p.m., and there’s no charge for admission.

“For two weeks now we’ve been scrimmaging each other, and it’s just nice and refreshing to play a game where it’s our entire team together playing somebody else,” Cavaliers coach Brian O’Connor said.

“It’s an opportunity to get the veteran players to start the game and get them some work together, and then to mix in a lot of the new players or unproven players and give them a little bit of an opportunity. And it’s a chance to take a look at some of our rookie pitchers.”

This is Scott Silverstein’s third year at UVa, but the 6-6, 235-pound left-hander qualifies as a rookie pitcher at the college level. So this is more than an exhibition game for Silverstein, who’ll start against the Blue Jays.

Since the end of his senior season at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., Silverstein has had two operations to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He has yet to pitch for the Cavaliers — he played in 19 games as a freshman in 2009, as a first baseman, designated hitter or pinch hitter — but his recovery from the second surgery continues to go well.

“The three outings that he’s had this fall have been solid,” O’Connor said. “He hasn’t pitched in competition in two years, so this is a great opportunity for him and the young first-years to pitch in a game that we’re trying to win.”

In June, a school-record nine players from UVa were taken in the Major League Baseball draft. Of that group, five who had eligibility remaining chose to turn pro: Jarrett Parker, Phil Gosselin, Dan Grovatt, Robert Morey and Kevin Arico.

From a team that won 51 games — another school record — and reached the championship game of an NCAA super regional, UVa must also replace catcher Franco Valdes and shortstop Tyler Cannon, who were seniors in 2010.

Fret not, UVa fans. O’Connor has compiled a 316-118-1 record in seven seasons with the ‘Hoos, with seven trips to the NCAA tournament, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll have continued success in 2011.

Virginia’s returning pitchers include Danny Hultzen, Tyler Wilson, Branden Kline, Cody Winiarski, Will Roberts, Justin Thompson, Whit Mayberry and Chad O’Connor. Among the position players back from the 2010 team, which spent a good part of the season ranked No. 1 nationally, are John Hicks, Keith Werman, Steven Proscia, John Barr, Kenny Swab, Stephen Bruno, Chris Taylor, Reed Gragnani and David Coleman.

Hultzen’s role is likely to grow in 2011. As a freshman in 2009, he was a fixture in UVa’s lineup, whether it be at pitcher, at first base, as designated hitter or in the outfield. He had 199 at-bats and hit .327.

UVa’s coaching staff wanted Hultzen to be fresh when postseason arrived in 2010, so he played little when he wasn’t pitching. The 6-3 left-hander sparkled on the mound, earning the ACC’s pitcher-of-the-year award, but Hultzen had only 57 at-bats last season, and his batting average dropped to .281.

“I anticipate that he’s going to play more and be in our lineup more than he was last year,” O’Connor said.

Sophomores Bruno and Gragnani figure to play a lot in 2011, too. They’re nursing minor injuries, though, and may be spectators Friday night.

Gragnani has worked mostly at second base this fall, O’Connor said, but is also a candidate to play in the outfield. Bruno has been splitting time with his classmate Taylor at shortstop.

If Gragnani and Bruno aren’t available, O’Connor said, his starting lineup Friday is likely to be: Silverstein at pitcher, Hicks at catcher, Hultzen at first base or DH, Swab at DH or first base, Werman at second, Taylor at shortstop, Proscia at third, Coleman in left, Barr in center and redshirt freshman Colin Harrington in right.

“He’s just a real scrappy, tough player,” O’Connor said of the 5-10, 170-pound Harrington, who’s from Johnstown, Pa.

“Last year, obviously, we had some really good depth. The guy just needed to wait his turn.”

Virginia’s well-regarded freshman class includes only three players who are not primarily pitchers: Mitchell Shifflett, Derek Justice and Mark Podlas. All are outfielders.

“From a position-player standpoint, there’s such an adjustment to this level,” O’Connor said, “just to the speed of the game and all the baserunning reads they have to make. There’s so many things that kids in high school were able to get away with, because they were better than their peers, that at this level you can’t get away with. So they’re in a learning process right now. They’re making a lot of mistakes and trying to correct them and trying to make mistakes less frequently.

“I’ve been impressed with Mitchell Shifflett. There’s no question he can really, really run. But it’s got to be able to be applied to the game of baseball. So he’s done some good things, but he’s got to get a lot better. I’ve been impressed with how much he’s battled at the plate with two strikes. [In practice Monday] he got a big two-strike base hit. It doesn’t appear like to me that he backs down from anything. He gets in there and fights.”

Of the first-year pitchers, left-hander Kyle Crockett and right-hander Artie Lewicki have stood out, O’Connor said. Crockett, the state’s Gatorade player of the year, led Poquoson High to the Group AA title in the spring.

“I think Kyle Crockett’s going to really do some good things,” O’Connor said. “He’s shown that he’s got good stuff. He’s got good command and poise.”

O’Connor said he’ll probably use six or seven pitchers Friday night “and just try to get them out there and get their feet wet.”

This won’t be the only opportunity for fans to check out the ‘Hoos this fall. The seven-game Orange and Blue World Series starts Oct. 3 and runs through Oct. 17.

“We’re in the phase right now where we’re trying to teach and we’re trying to get better,” O’Connor said. “But guys are trying to show their teammates and their coaches which ones of them are going to emerge. That’s the big thing with this team: Which guys are going to step forward and show that they are guys that can be consistently counted on at this level?”

The exhibition game will provide some answers.


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