By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The No. 1 seed in the ACC baseball tournament is one of only two teams in Division 1 with fewer than 10 losses. The No. 1 seed placed five players on the all-ACC first team and two more on the second team and has the conference’s coach of the year. The No. 1 seed is headed to the NCAA tournament for eighth straight season and is a lock to host a regional.
The No. 1 seed, of course, is the University of Virginia, which much spent much of the regular season ranked No. 1 nationally. Yet in the wake of the Cavaliers’ final regular-season series, there’s angst among some of the team’s fans.
In the first of three games against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the Wahoos fell 6-0 on Thursday — their first shutout loss in more than three years.
Game 2 brought more pain for Virginia. UNC won 2-1, ensuring that the ‘Hoos would drop a league series for the first time all season. In the finale, the Tar Heels won 3-2 to complete the first sweep of UVa by an ACC foe since Miami did it in April 2008.
“That was kind of a weird feeling,” said junior left-hander Danny Hultzen, who on Monday was named ACC pitcher of the year for the second straight season. “That’s something I’ve never been a part of [at UVa].”
The series wasn’t fun for the Cavaliers’ coach, either. But Brian O’Connor doesn’t want his team — or its fans — to lose perspective.
“It’s one weekend,” O’Connor said Monday at Davenport Field. “It happened to be the last weekend of the year.”
Junior third baseman Steven Proscia, sitting in the home dugout, echoed his coach’s comments.
“I think any time you play that many games, you’re bound to have a series like that,” Proscia said. “It so happens ours happened at the end of the year.”
Virginia’s pitchers were not the problem in Chapel Hill. They threw well. But the ‘Hoos batted only .167 (15 for 90) and struck out 24 times against UNC.
“We’ve been very, very consistent all year long,” O’Connor said on a teleconference Monday morning. “We just had a tough weekend. It wasn’t that we didn’t have scoring opportunities. We just didn’t get the big hits that we needed, but that can happen when you face a really good pitching staff on the road.
“We just didn’t do enough. Our approach doesn’t need to change. Our guys aren’t tight or anything. It’s baseball, and it just didn’t happen for us this weekend.”
Among ACC teams, UVa ranks third in batting average (.302) and has struck out only 274 times. Every other team in the conference has at least 321 strikeouts.
“We’ve got some pretty impressive things going on for us if you look at our whole body of work,” said O’Connor, the ACC coach of the year.
“I think we make a mistake as a program, and the players make a mistake as players, if they [attach too much importance] to one weekend. We’ve had a very, very productive offensive ball club all year long. We’ve just got to get back to that, and we will.”
The first opportunity for UVa (45-9) comes Wednesday in Durham, N.C. At 3 p.m., Virginia plays No. 8 seed Wake Forest (25-28) at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the stadium where O’Connor’s club won the ACC tournament as the No. 6 seed in 2009.
The eight teams in the ACC tournament have been split into two groups. Division A consists of UVa, Wake, No. 4 seed North Carolina and No. 5 seed Miami. Division B comprises No. 2 seed Florida State, No. 3 seed Georgia Tech, No. 6 seed Clemson and No. 7 seed NC State.
In the latest Baseball America rankings, Virginia is No. 5, FSU is No. 7, Georgia Tech is No. 11, UNC is No. 12, Clemson is No. 14, and Miami is No. 17. UVa and Georgia Tech shared the Coastal Division crown. Florida State won the Atlantic Division.
UVa takes on Miami (34-20) at 11 a.m. Friday and North Carolina (44-12) at 7 p.m. Saturday. The winners of each division will meet for the ACC title Sunday afternoon.
A year ago in Greensboro, N.C., Virginia went 2-1 in pool play but lost a tiebreaker to Florida State. FSU then beat NC State for the ACC title.
No matter what happens in Durham, UVa figures to be one of the top eight seeds in the NCAA tourney. Still, O’Connor said, “I think it’s very, very important that we do everything we can to put ourselves in a position to try to be in that title game, and try to win it.
“If that doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world. There’s going to be seven teams that aren’t going to win it, and this is one heck of a tournament … But it’s just important that we go down there and play well and have success, so we can have a positive feeling and a winning attitude moving into the NCAA tournament.”
Senior right-hander Tyler Wilson (6-0, 2.54 earned-run average) will start against Wake. The Friday and Saturday starters in Durham will be Hultzen (9-3, 1.49) and junior right-hander Will Roberts (10-1, 1.67), though O’Connor said Monday that he hasn’t settled on an order.
Of the other seven teams in the tournament, UVa faced six during the regular season. The exception? Wake Forest. The Cavaliers haven’t played the Demon Deacons since 2009.
“It’s different, there’s no question,” O’Connor said. “But again, we’re never going to worry about what another team does or who they are. We’re at the point right now that we need to control what we do as a team, and if we do that then we’ll have a chance.”
UVa’s representatives on the All-ACC first team are Hultzen, Proscia, junior catcher John Hicks, senior outfielder David Coleman and sophomore reliever Branden Kline. The second team includes Wilson and senior outfielder John Barr.
From the UNC series, Proscia said, “We learned that we could be beat. We’ve had so much success this year. We’ve won a lot of games, and it’s kind of a reality check in some respects. But I think it was good for us. I think we needed it. We got it out of our system, so hopefully we can move forward and have much more success.”