June 15, 2011

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Chris Taylor has an unusual distinction: He’s a Wahoo who grew up pulling for the Hokies. His father is a former Virginia Tech wrestler, though, so Taylor’s rooting interest was understandable when he was a boy in Virginia Beach.

Yet even as Taylor cheered for Tech in other sports, “I always loved the way the Virginia baseball program played,” he said Wednesday.

Taylor, one of whose grandfathers also wrestled at Tech, remembers his first visit to Davenport Field. He was a freshman or sophomore at Cox High School — “maybe even younger,” Taylor said — and Ryan Zimmerman was playing third base for UVa. Taylor was hooked.

“That’s when I kind of knew if I ever had a chance to come here, I probably would,” he said.

Now, at the end of his second year at UVa, Taylor is part of only the second team in school history to advance to the College World Series. Would the Cavaliers be headed to Omaha, Neb., without their shortstop’s contributions in the NCAA super regional at Davenport? Probably not.

Taylor, who bats leadoff for the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 national seed, was 6 for 12 in three games against UC Irvine. His final hit is already the stuff of legend at UVa. In the deciding game, with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth Monday night, with a sellout crowd holding its breath, Taylor drilled a two-run single to lift the ‘Hoos to a 3-2 win over the Anteaters.

“He wore us out all weekend, quite frankly,” UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said.

Taylor said: “I felt really good all weekend. I’m seeing it as well as I ever have been.”

On his series-winning hit, Taylor said, “I just tried to do what I’ve been doing all weekend and keep a simple approach. Not try to do too much. I just wanted to try to stay relaxed and hit a line drive or a hard ground ball somewhere.”

On opening day this season, Taylor was in right field and classmate Stephen Bruno was at shortstop. They had battled throughout the fall for the starting job at short, with Bruno prevailing by a thin margin.

“My plan was to still play Taylor some at shortstop, while obviously seeing what happened at the other positions, but I knew that Chris Taylor would need to be in our lineup every day,” UVa coach Brian O’Connor said Wednesday. “I just felt like coming out of fall baseball that Taylor needed to be our leadoff guy. I love a guy that has a chance to be able to start the game off with a double, but also can steal bases and handle the bat and get big clutch hits.”

O’Connor told him he would be an everyday player this spring, Taylor recalled, “and that’s really all I wanted. I wanted to be able to help the team in any way I could, and if that was at shortstop or right field or wherever, I’d be happy to be there.”

Taylor, who hit .305 in 2010, is “so athletic that he can play anywhere on the diamond,” O’Connor said. “I knew injuries happen throughout the year at different positions, and I knew that he was just going to be very valuable to us.”

Misfortune struck Bruno early in the season when he suffered a serious hamstring injury. Bruno hasn’t played since March 22, and Taylor has become a fixture at shortstop. If there was a dropoff, it was minimal. Taylor is hitting .310 this season. In the NCAA tourney, he’s 12 for 26.

Even though Bruno won the job in the fall, O’Connor said, “I also knew that [Taylor] was a very, very talented shortstop. There was no question about that.”

In the fall of his freshman year, on a team that included such pro prospects as Jarrett Parker, Phil Gosselin and Dan Grovatt, Taylor dazzled scouts who came to Davenport to evaluate UVa’s draft-eligible players in practices and scrimmages.

“A lot of them walked away, honestly, and said that they felt like Chris Taylor had the most talent on our team,” O’Connor said. “That says a lot. I think the kid’s very, very skilled, I think he’s really athletic, and I’m glad that he’s playing such great baseball, because he’s sure been tremendous for us.”

Bruno won’t play in Omaha, but he’s on UVa’s 35-player travel roster.

“He’s done a great job of being a team player and helping this team any way he can,” Taylor said. “He helps us on the bench. He teaches the younger guys certain things. It’s huge that he’s still with us. I’m glad that he’s here coming to Omaha with us.”

Bruno is still rehabilitating his injury. Under the best-case scenario, Bruno would be cleared to play summer ball late next month, “but he’s just not anywhere close to being ready for that now,” O’Connor said, and that hasn’t been easy for the Audobon, N.J., resident.

“I know this is eating at Stephen Bruno, the fact that he’s injured and hasn’t been able to play much at all this season and won’t be able to play the remainder of the season,” O’Connor said. “You come here to the University of Virginia with visions of developing your talents and also having an opportunity to play in a capacity where you’re helping your team win championships. He’s had to sit there and watch it, but I know he’s learning and growing as a player. I know he’s been a great teammate all along, and he’s cheering his teammates on and taking the experience in as much as he can.”

Virginia (54-10) plays its CWS opener Sunday at 2 p.m. Eastern against California (37-21). Cal won the inaugural College World Series in 1947. The Cavaliers made their first appearance in Omaha — the city where O’Connor was born — in 2009.

As a Cox senior that season, Taylor was named the state’s Group AAA player of the year. When he committed to ‘Hoos in September 2008, however, Taylor was not considered an elite recruit.

“No question Chris Taylor was absolutely under the radar,” O’Connor said. “I don’t think maybe people really knew his athleticism and what this kid was capable of doing.

“It’s a strange thing. The scouts missed Ryan Zimmerman out of high school. And Chris Taylor’s opportunities are very similar to the opportunities Ryan Zimmerman had.

“It’s an inexact science. It’s tough. There’s so many players out there, and you just don’t know how a player’s going to develop from the ages of 17 to 21.”

Taylor was a standout wrestler in middle school, but baseball was his favorite sport. He gave up wrestling when he headed to Cox. His father supported his decision. Chris Taylor Sr. didn’t object, either, when his son decided to become a ‘Hoo.

At Davenport Field, Taylor said, a couple of UVa fans like to needle his father about having attended Virginia Tech. Do the elder Taylor’s friends from Tech tease him about having a son at Virginia?

“I’m not sure,” Taylor said, smiling. “But I think he does a good job of making sure if he wears UVa stuff it says ‘baseball’ on it.”

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