Feb. 21, 2012

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Mother Nature intervened in the form of a late-winter snowfall, forcing a 24-hour delay of the UVa baseball team’s home opener. But temperatures are rising, and Virginia is set to host William and Mary at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

When last we saw the Cavaliers in an official game at Davenport Field, it was June 13, 2011, and they were rallying in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat UC Irvine. That victory, in the deciding game of an NCAA super regional, sent the Wahoos to the College World Series for the second time in three seasons.

Many of UVa’s 2011 stars, however, are now playing professionally, and Brian O’Connor finds himself in uncharted territory. For the first time in O’Connor’s nine seasons as Virginia’s head coach, his team is not 2-1 or 3-0 after three games. The ‘Hoos are 1-1-1 after an eventful weekend at the Caravelle Resort Tournament in South Carolina.

On Coastal Carolina’s field in Conway, UVa opened Friday afternoon with a 5-3 loss to Boston College in a game that doesn’t count in the ACC standings.

The next afternoon, Virginia rallied to crush Coastal 9-3 in Conway. Then the Cavaliers drove to nearby Myrtle Beach for a Saturday night date with JMU. That game, played in dismal weather conditions, was called after eight innings with the score 4-4.

“I thought it was a good weekend,” O’Connor said Monday. “We learned a lot.”

He would be happier if the ‘Hoos were 3-0, but the “fact that we lost the first game and then came back and beat Coastal in their own ballpark is a great sign of this team showing some bounce-back and some resiliency,” O’Connor said.

“That was the bright spot for me. When you lack some experience, a lot of times guys can have doubt and they can put a lot of pressure on themselves, and it was great to see them bounce back.”

Against an experienced Boston College team, Virginia led 3-0 after three innings. The Cavaliers ultimately lost, O’Connor said, because they failed to take care of “the details of the game of baseball, both defensively and offensively. We didn’t situationally hit very well when we had opportunities to, and when you’re playing a veteran ball club, you can’t have mishaps defensively and you can’t not take advantage of your opportunities from a situational standpoint offensively.”

Virginia hit only .250 in the tournament. Still, several players — senior Jared King (5 for 12), juniors Stephen Bruno (4 for 10), Reed Gragnani (3 for 8) and Colin Harrington (3 for 9), and freshman Mike Papi (4 for 12) — distinguished themselves at the plate.

Leadoff hitter Chris Taylor went 1 for 14, but the junior shortstop “hit a ton of balls this weekend right on the screws,” O’Connor said, “line drives, balls that were driven. That didn’t get rewarded, and you don’t see that in a box score, but if you’re squaring the ball up consistently and your approach is right, the hits will come over time.”

UVa used nine pitchers over the weekend, including Joel Effertz, who threw an inning of scoreless relief against Coastal. The 6-3, 220-pound junior will start Wednesday against W&M (2-1).

Effertz, who began his college career at Arizona, transferred to UVa last year from Madison Area Technical College. That’s the junior college in Wisconsin at which another right-handed pitcher, Cody Winiarski, starred before moving on to UVa.

“He’s a big, strong kid that throws in the mid to upper 80s with his fastball, and he’s got a good breaking ball,” O’Connor said of Effertz. “He’s somebody that’s got to go out there and continue to gain experience, but he’s worked extremely hard here.”

Freshman Nate Irving handled the catching duties against Boston College and Coastal Carolina. Senior Keith Werman, better known as a sure-handed second baseman, started behind the plate against JMU and went five innings before giving way to Irving.

Irving had a costly passed ball against BC, but the occasional mistake is to be expected from a freshman, said Connor, who returned from South Carolina encouraged about his team’s depth at catcher. Junior Chace Mitchell and freshman Brandon Downes are also options there.

“I thought Nate Irving had a tremendous weekend. I really do,” said O’Connor, who singled out the play in the Coastal game when Irving threw out a runner who was attempting to steal.

“He threw a couple of guys out … and I thought he managed the game really well. I thought he handled the pressure really, really well.”

The home opener is the first of nine straight games at Davenport for UVa, which is scheduled to host Monmouth on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. O’Connor knows it will take time for his latest team to jell, but he remains upbeat.

“It was great to see in the Coastal game so many guys get some really clutch hits,” he said. “We would obviously have liked to have won another game, but I think it was a really, really good weekend for us.”

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