By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — They’ve broken out the bats and balls at Davenport Field, where UVa players have been working out with head coach Brian O’Connor and his assistants since the new semester began.
The pace picks up this weekend. The Cavaliers’ first official practice for the coming season is Friday, and the ninth annual Step Up to the Plate event is Saturday night.
“It’s exciting,” O’Connor said. “Obviously, the season’s right around the corner.”
Virginia, No. 15 in Baseball America’s preseason rankings, opens Feb. 18 against UAB at Auburn. The Wahoos’ home opener is Feb. 23 against VMI.
UVa fans can get autographs from and learn more about O’Connor’s latest team Saturday night at John Paul Jones Arena. Tickets remain for Step Up to the Plate, the program’s signature fundraiser.
For its first seven years, Step Up to the Plate was held at Memorial Gymnasium. This will be its second straight year in JPJ.
The keynote speaker is Bobby Valentine, whose predecessors in that role include Terry Francona, Tony LaRussa, Ryne Sandberg, Cal Ripken Jr. and Dave Winfield. Valentine played and managed in the major leagues and now is an analyst for ESPN.
O’Connor never has met Valentine, but they have mutual acquaintances.
“I think people are going to really enjoying listening to him and supporting our program,” O’Connor said. “Bobby is a really good ambassador for the game.”
O’Connor is heading into his eighth season with the Wahoos, who have enjoyed unprecedented success during his tenure. UVa is 316-118-1 under O’Connor and has made seven straight trips to the NCAA tournament. The ‘Hoos advanced to the College World Series in 2009 and to a super regional last year.
From the 2010 team, a school-record nine players were picked in the Major League Baseball draft, and O’Connor must replace five everyday starters: Jarrett Parker, Phil Gosselin, Dan Grovatt, Franco Valdes and Tyler Cannon. Also gone are closer Kevin Arico and right-hander Robert Morey, the team’s No. 2 starter last season.
Don’t expect those personnel losses to cripple Cavaliers.
“I think we’ve got some really talented players that haven’t had the opportunity to play every day yet in the program, and I believe they’ll show what they’re capable of doing,” O’Connor said. “I think the feeling on our club and amongst the team is very, very positive. I think we’re going to do some really, really good things.”
His top priority between now and opening day, O’Connor said, is “putting guys in the right position to give us the best chance to win.
“What I mean by that is: Who’s going to play the outfield spots against a right-handed starter or against a left-handed starter? Who’s going to DH? Who’s going to play first base? We’re just starting to work towards finding out what those combinations are to give us the best chance to win. That’s important going into the season, but I don’t think maybe we’re going to have those answers until we start playing and get into the early pre-conference stuff to figure out what some of these guys are capable of doing.”
The Cavaliers’ skipper knows well what such veterans as Danny Hultzen, Steven Proscia, Keith Werman, John Barr and John Hicks are capable of doing.
Hultzen, a junior left-hander who was the ACC’s pitcher of the year in 2010, leads a staff that should again rank among the nation’s best. Other pitchers back include seniors Tyler Wilson and Cody Winiarski, junior William Roberts and sophomore Branden Kline.
“If there’s a place you want to have experience as a coach, you’d want it on the mound,” O’Connor said. “I think it’s just a matter of where guys end up fitting in for us to have consistent success. Who’s the second starter, who’s the third starter, who’s the closer? Things like that.”
Wilson, a middle reliever for most of his college career, is likely to begin this season as a starter, and then “we’ll see whether that’s best for our team,” O’Connor said.
For most of the past three seasons, Parker and Grovatt were fixtures in center and right field, respectively, and “then we kind of rotated left field,” O’Connor said.
The situation in the outfield is less settled heading into this season.
“I think you’re going to see some different combinations out there,” O’Connor said, “whether it be maybe versus a right-handed starter, a left-handed starter, more kind of situational stuff than we’ve done in the past.”
Barr and fellow senior David Coleman provide experience in the outfield. Barr, who primarily played left field in 2009 and ’10, has been working in center. Other options include senior Kenny Swab, sophomores Reed Gragnani and Chris Taylor, redshirt freshman Colin Harrington and freshman Mitchell Shifflett.
Gragnani has been working mainly in left field and at first base, though he can also play second base. Taylor is battling classmate Stephen Bruno for the starting job at shortstop.
“I’m sure at some point, as we get into the start of the season, one of those individuals will emerge and play the majority of the time,” O’Connor said. “But my plan going into it is, we’ve got two shortstops. The reality is I have not seen either one of those guys play on an everyday basis over a 56-game college schedule.
“So I feel great. I feel like we have two really legitimate options at shortstop. If you want to have depth somewhere, that’s a pretty good place to have depth.”
Juniors Proscia and Werman are returning starters at third and second base, respectively. Hicks, also a junior, is expected to be the Cavaliers’ No. 1 catcher.
The first baseman? It may be Hicks when he’s not catching or Hultzen when he isn’t pitching. Swab also can play there, and he’s a catcher, too.
When preseason practice opened last year, O’Connor had all of his starting position players from 2009 back. This year has brought “some uncertainty,” he acknowledged.
“There’s talent, but we’ve just got to go out and prove it,” O’Connor said. “These guys have shown us stuff in practice. Now when the lights come on and it’s game time, they have to show that they can do the job on a consistent basis.”