By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — It’s much too early to draw conclusions about Brian O’Connor‘s latest team at the University of Virginia, where he has built one of the premier programs in college baseball. UVa is only four games into a season that will stretch at least into late May.
In their home opener Wednesday, however, the 2012 Cavaliers showed the ability to do what their esteemed predecessors so regularly did: prevail in a game in which they weren’t at their best.
“I’m proud of our guys,” O’Connor said after Virginia rallied for two runs in the bottom of the 11th inning to beat William and Mary 6-5 at Davenport Field.
The Wahoos (2-1-1) had only two hits (and no runs) through seven innings, and they finished the game with four errors — an unusually high total for an O’Connor-coached team. The Tribe (2-2) stranded 19 runners.
“Anybody that knows the game of baseball could see in that game that there’s a lot of things that we need to improve on,” O’Connor said. “But most importantly, I’m proud of our players, because we found a way to win the ball game.”
The game was the Cavaliers’ first at Davenport since June 13, 2011, when they rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat UC Irvine in the deciding game of an NCAA super regional.
The stakes were nowhere near as high Wednesday, of course, but the way the ‘Hoos won “will have a lot of great implications for us,” senior first baseman Jared King said.
Virginia figures to be tested again this weekend when Monmouth, 3-0 for the first time since 1994, comes to town for a three-game series at Davenport. The teams are scheduled to meet at 3 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m Sunday.
This is O’Connor’s ninth season at UVa, where his record is 374-131-2, with eight appearances in the NCAA tournament.
His eighth team was the best in the history of a program that dates to 1889. In 2011, UVa won a school-record 56 games, captured the ACC title and advanced to the College World Series for the second time in three seasons.
From that team, Virginia lost, among others, outfielders David Coleman, Kenny Swab and John Barr, catcher John Hicks, third baseman Steven Proscia and its top four starting pitchers: Danny Hultzen, Will Roberts, Tyler Wilson and Cody Winiarski. O’Connor returned such players as King, Keith Werman, Chris Taylor, Reed Gragnani, Justin Thompson, Scott Silverstein, Whit Mayberry, Shane Halley and Branden Kline, but this team looks markedly different from the 2011 version.
Against W&M, three freshmen started for UVa: right-fielder Mike Papi, designated hitter Derek Fisher and catcher Nate Irving. Moreover, the Wahoos’ starting pitcher, junior right-hander Joel Effertz, played for a junior college in Wisconsin last season.
“Every team’s different, every year,” O’Connor said. “There’s new personnel every season. That’s the nature of college baseball with the draft, and the reality is kids can only stay here four years” at most.
Every team must “learn over time how to hang in ball games and not let a game get out of hand, to give yourself a chance to win, No. 1, which I think our pitching did tonight,” O’Connor said. “And then, secondly, to hang in there and find a way to scratch, and hopefully the team you’re playing is going to open the door for you to capitalize on a few opportunities and have a chance to win it late.”
Papi, UVa’s cleanup hitter, was 0 for 3, with two walks, when he came to the plate in the 11th. Junior Chris Taylor (2 for 6) was at third base, and sophomore Mitchell Shifflett, the team’s fastest player, was on second with only one out. Papi drove both home with a single to right field, ending a game that lasted four hours and 17 minutes.
“The guy’s played four games in our uniform, and all of the sudden he’s up there with all the pressure on him and drives in two runs,” O’Connor said. “It was great to see.”
Papi wasn’t pleased to have struggled early against the Tribe, he told reporters, “but I knew I was going to get a chance later on in the game [to] help my team out.”
For the season, Papi is hitting .313, with 3 RBI. Among his teammates, only King (.471), Gragnani (.417) and Bruno (.357) have higher averages. Only King (8) has more RBI than Papi.
“He still has a lot of development to go,” O’Connor said, “but when you win a game like that at home, your first home game — you’re at the plate with a chance to win it for your club, and you do it — you’ve got to walk away with a lot of confidence.”
King had three of UVa’s 11 hits Wednesday, including two doubles. In the eighth, King’s three-run double to left center pulled Virginia to 4-3. (Irving singled in the tying run later that inning.)
“He’s off to a fantastic start,” O’Connor said of King. “He’s leading by example. He got a lot of big clutch hits down in South Carolina this past weekend and came up big again tonight, and that’s what your veteran players need to do: carry you for a little while until some of the new players can gain some experience.”
King said: “I’m in a pretty good place right now. I’m seeing the ball really well. Just trying not to do too much. There’s plenty of guys on this team that are going to hit home runs and have extra-base hits. I think for me personally I’m just trying to be like a steady cog and consistently do my thing.”
With the departures of Hultzen, Hicks, Proscia, Wilson and Co., a new group of leaders has stepped forward at Virginia. King is part of it.
“There’s always times where you look around, and the guys that I’ve come here with and been used to seeing for the last three years are gone,” King said. “But at the same time I think it’s a really, really great opportunity for guys like myself and Werm and J.T. and Scott Silverstein and Shane, guys that have been here, to really show the young kids how we do things and how we go about it on a day-to-day basis.”
King said he believes the win over W&M “will take off a lot of pressure for some guys. It’s one of those things where I’m sure because we have so many young guys, they don’t really know what to expect midweek. But we have a target on our back. It’s just the way it is. And so now guys are like, ‘Hey, this is how teams are going to play us. You really can’t take a day off.’ “
A season ago, UVa went 13-6 in one-run games. Still, King said Wednesday, the ‘Hoos “don’t focus on winning tight games. I think we just focus on kind of being mentally tough, and that ability kind of shines through in those tough times and those tight games like we had tonight, where we don’t score a run for [seven] innings, and then we put a 4-spot up.”
A crowd of 2,598 turned out for the home opener, which began in sunshine and ended under the lights. The fans were treated to a UVa victory, as is usually the case at Davenport, and also got their first look at a stadium that underwent an offseason makeover. Among other touches: New banners honoring former Virginia greats hang throughout the concourse, and the outfield walls are freshly painted, with new orange trim.
“The ballpark looks great, and it was great to have really enthusiastic fan support tonight,” O’Connor said. “We didn’t give ’em much to cheer about in the first seven innings, but they hung around and cheered us on in the end.”
Virginia’s scheduled starters this weekend are Kline, Silverstein and Mayberry, respectively. Thompson, who threw three innings in relief against W&M, is likely to rest Friday, but the other pitchers O’Connor used out of the bullpen — Halley and sophomores Artie Lewicki and Kyle Crockett — should be available.
“And we need to look at some other guys, we really do,” O’Connor said. “We need to get a look at two or three more pitchers, so we can start to create some depth, and the only way you do that is by throwing them out there and giving them opportunities.”