By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The most heralded member of the UVa baseball team’s freshman class did not get his first hit until his fourth game.
After his first nine appearances as a Cavalier, Derek Fisher was batting .208, and four of his five hits had come in one game. But Virginia’s coaches remained confident that Fisher would come around, and their faith has been rewarded. They felt the same way about the team when it struggled early this season, and there’s cause for optimism on that front, too.
In their second ACC series, the Wahoos dropped three games at Florida State. A week later, the ‘Hoos bounced back to sweep Clemson at Davenport Field, winning 6-3 on Friday, 5-1 on Saturday and 5-3 in Sunday’s finale. Virginia moved to 5-4 in the ACC and 15-8-1 overall.
“Maybe this team’s growing a little bit,” head coach Brian O’Connor said Sunday afternoon. “Maybe we’re learning. I thought that there was a real calm confidence to our team this weekend, similar to what we’ve had in some of our previous clubs. And maybe that’s something that this team is starting to learn, that even though you get swept at Florida State, you can’t panic. If you believe in yourself and you have confidence and have confidence in your teammates and you hang in there, eventually this game will come your way.”
Fisher, a sixth-round pick of the Texas Rangers last June, went 2 for 2 on Sunday to raise his average to .301. He also scored three of UVa’s five runs.
When he was struggling early in the season, Fisher sought the advice of some of the team’s veterans. “It’s awesome just to go to them for anything,” he said Sunday, “because in situations like that, I didn’t know. I was just going up to the plate just trying to be me, and obviously it wasn’t working out too well in the beginning. But I found a groove and I made adjustments, and that’s all you can really ask for.”
Fisher said he wasn’t putting extra pressure on himself early in the season. The caliber of pitching he encountered on the college level was a bigger factor.
“You’re going against kids that can throw four pitches for strikes, and they know exactly where it’s going, and they’ve got scouting reports and they’ve got video,” Fisher said, “so you gotta do all you can to just hit the ball hard and put it in play, and whatever happens happens.”
In the three games against Clemson, Fisher, who bats left-handed, went 3 for 9, with a home run. He tripled in his first at-bat Sunday. In his second, he was hit by a pitch. In his third, he doubled. In his fourth, he was intentionally walked.
That loaded the bases with two outs in the seventh inning and brought up Fisher’s classmate Nate Irving, UVa’s starting catcher. Facing hard-throwing reliever Scott Firth, Irving found himself down 0-2 in the count.
“Falling behind was not really my initial plan,” Irving said with a smile later.
That didn’t deter him. Irving fouled off three pitches before working the count full. Firth’s ninth pitch to Irving was inside, and Stephen Bruno came home from third to push Virginia’s lead to 5-3.
“That was a great at-bat,” O’Connor said. “Even though we didn’t need it, I think that run was a huge run. I think you can pitch a little bit differently when it’s a two-run lead versus a one-run lead. Nate’s at-bat’s an example of how our guys have been battling. When you battle and you compete, good things are going to come our way.”
This is O’Connor’s ninth season at UVa, where his teams have advanced to the NCAA tournament eight times and to the College World Series twice (2009 and ’11). Rarely if ever, though, has O’Connor had to replace as much talent as he did after last season ended.
Among the players who departed were Danny Hultzen, Steven Proscia, John Hicks, John Barr, Kenny Swab, David Coleman, Will Roberts, Tyler Wilson and Cody Winiarski. So perhaps it should not have been surprising that the Cavaliers started slowly this season.
After 11 games, Virginia was 6-4-1. UVa won its first ACC series, taking 2 of 3 from Virginia Tech in Charlottesville, but went 0-3 in Tallahassee a week later. In their final two losses at FSU, the Cavaliers blew late leads.
His players, O’Connor said Sunday, are “bright, and they understand and they get it. They understand when you get swept what you need to do to make up for that at some point.
“Overall, any time you have a chance to win a series, first of all, in this league, you gotta do it. And then when you have an opportunity to sweep, they don’t come very often in this league. I’m just proud of our guys that they weren’t content with just winning the series. That we came out and played another good baseball game today.”
With Whit Mayberry (2-0, 3.67 ERA) unavailable because of a sore elbow, sophomore right-hander Artie Lewicki started Sunday and threw six solid innings. The first pitcher out of UVa’s bullpen, sophomore left-hander Kyle Crockett, surrendered singles to the first three batters he faced, after which sophomore right-hander Austin Young replaced him.
With Clemson trailing 4-3 and runners on first and second, Phil Pohl tried to bunt. But he popped up to Young, who wheeled and fired to shortstop Chris Taylor at second base before Clemson’s Jay Baum could get back to the bag. Young then retired Richie Schaffer on a fly ball to end the inning.
“Austin Young came into a pretty tough situation and managed to get out of it,” O’Connor said.
The same could be said for all the UVa players.
“It was definitely a real big eye-opener for us, going down to Florida State,” Fisher said.
O’Connor said: “They’re young, 18 to 22 years old. They just want to play ball. They want to go out there and compete and show what their team’s capable of doing. In this sport, you have to have a very short memory, because this league can humble you in a hurry. When you don’t have success, you’ve got to put it behind you quickly.”
Next on UVa’s ACC schedule is a three-game series at NC State, starting Friday night. First, however, the ‘Hoos will host Towson (12-10) twice at Davenport Field. The teams are scheduled to meet Tuesday and Wednesday, with a 5 p.m. start each day.
Freshman right-hander Barrett O’Neill will start one of the midweek games, O’Connor said, and the Cavaliers will look to get senior right-hander Shane Halley (1-1, 2.25) some work against the Tigers.
“We still need to solidify some things, the back part of the game, exactly what we’re doing with our pitchers coming out of the pen,” O’Connor said. “This last week or so we’ve been kind of thrown a little bit of a monkey wrench with Whit Mayberry’s elbow being sore and Artie in the rotation and still trying to figure it out: Who’s the right guy in the seventh? Who’s the right guy in the eighth? Who do we match up with?
“And that’ll play out. We lost 70 percent of our innings [from] last year, and it was going to take some time to figure that out, and I think we’re starting to get some answers.”