By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa’s baseball team walked off the field victorious Friday night. So what else is new? The victory — this one over Georgia Tech — was the 21st-ranked Cavaliers’ sixth straight in conference play and ninth straight overall, and it assured them a berth in the eight-team ACC tournament.
Six regular-season games remain for the Wahoos, the first coming Saturday at 1 p.m. against the Yellow Jackets at Davenport Field. (The series finale is Sunday at 1 p.m.) If Brian O’Connor’s club keeps winning, it may well host an NCAA tournament regional for the third year in a row. But O’Connor doesn’t want his players worrying about postseason possibilities.
“We don’t really ever talk about goals, other than going out and playing good baseball and getting better,” O’Connor said after UVa edged Georgia Tech 6-5 before a crowd of 3,622 on a gorgeous spring evening.
“Those things, like hosting regionals or where you finish in the conference, those things take care of themselves if you take care of business on the field,” O’Connor said. “Certainly the players are intelligent, they understand what’s at stake, but I don’t think that you can ever play for something like that. You play for your teammates and you play to win, and if you do that, and we have some good fortune, and we play hard and win some big ball games, those things are opportunities.”
Stephen Bruno said: “I think we all know what can happen when we play quality baseball.”
Bruno, a junior third baseman. leads the ‘Hoos (33-14-1 overall, 15-10 ACC) with a .366 batting average. He’s far from imposing physically, at 5-9, 165 pounds, but his frame belies his power at the plate. Against Georgia Tech ace Buck Farmer, Bruno belted two home runs to raise his season total to six.
“Stephen, really for the last month and a half, has really stepped up,” O’Connor said. “and it looks like he’s seeing the ball great, and he’s putting great swings on the ball, getting clutch hits. He’s obviously a very, very talented player. We’ve talked about him a lot for a couple of years. Now I’m just so happy for him that he has a chance to play every day and really show his teammates and his coaches and everybody that follows this program his ability level and what he’s capable of doing.”
Bruno said he’s just “trying to have quality at-bat after quality at-bat. The outcome doesn’t matter, as long as you have quality at-bats, and if you continue that, you’re going to have good success. That’s been my approach all year.”
In their nine seasons under O’Connor, the ‘Hoos have won a staggering 405 games and been fixtures in the NCAA tournament. UVa has never, however, ranked among the ACC leaders in home runs, in part because of Davenport Field’s spacious dimensions.
This season has been no different. The Cavaliers entered the series opener against Georgia Tech with 19 homers, a modest total. But then a remarkable thing happened: Virginia put on a power display rarely seen from an O’Connor-coached team.
Moments after Bruno’s first-inning blast to left, freshman Derek Fisher crushed his team-leading seventh homer over the right-field wall. That marked the first time since Jarrett Parker and John Hicks did the honors on June 4, 2010, that the Cavaliers had homered in consecutive at-bats.
The ‘Hoos weren’t through. Freshman Brandon Downes hit his first home run as a Cavalier in the second, and then Bruno led off the third with a solo shot over the left-field wall. Not since March 3, 2002, had Virginia hit four homers in a game at Davenport.
“There was nothing we were doing different,” O’Connor said. “I just think our guys were locked in at the plate, and they were taking good swings.”
In the end, though, home runs didn’t decide this game. In the late innings, UVa used strong pitching, stellar defense and timely hitting to prevail over the Yellow Jackets (30-20, 10-15).
“Tonight was a total team victory, really,” O’Connor said.
On a night when starter Branden Kline went only 3.1 innings, sophomore Kyle Crockett, freshman Nick Howard and senior Justin Thompson dominated in relief, allowing only two hits and one walk among them. Virginia’s bullpen hasn’t allowed a run in ACC games in 32.2 innings.
In the eighth, after an unsuccessful squeeze attempt led to the Cavaliers’ first out, Downes stepped to the plate with runners on first and second. He singled to left, and Jared King scored from second to put UVa up 6-5.
That was all Virginia’s closer needed. Thompson struck out the first batter he faced in the ninth. The next, Chase Butler, reached on an error by shortstop Chris Taylor, but an exquisite double play — UVa’s fourth of the game — extinguished the Jackets’ comeback hopes.
Kyle Wren hit a grounder that second baseman Keith Werman fielded on the bounce. Werman took a step forward to tag out pinch-runner DeAndre Smelter, who was headed to second, and then fired to first. Werman’s throw beat Wren to the bag, and the game was over.
“That’s picking each other up,” O’Connor said. “Obviously C.T. wishes he could have that play back to make the second out, but he didn’t handle the baseball, and that happens, and Werman certainly picked him up by making that key double play. Right there, Keith Werman showed how smart of a baseball player he is … He’s just such a heady player, and the guy’s been doing for that for four years.”
Werman and King are the only seniors who start for UVa. In the opener against Georgia Tech, O’Connor started four freshmen — Fisher in left, Downes in center, Nate Irving at catcher and Branden Cogswell at designated hitter — and used a fifth, Howard, out of the bullpen.
“A lot’s been said all year long about our inexperience on this ball club,” O’Connor said, “but with the tenacity that we played with and the way we played the game and kept fighting and hanging in there, we played like a very mature group tonight.”
During a winning streak that includes a sweep of ACC rival Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., the Cavaliers have shown signs of being “a team that gets it and understands what you have to do to be successful at the highest level of college baseball,” O’Connor said. “Now, we can’t forget that. Those are the things that we need to continue to do, because that will serve us well going forward.”
Bruno said: “We’re all putting it together, and we’re playing like we know how to play.”
Downes was in good spirits during the postgame press conference, and for good reason. A broken left hand, suffered in his last at-bat against JMU on March 6, derailed his first college season, but he’s healthy again and playing well.
“I’ve never actually been hurt like this before,” Downes said Friday night. “It was kind of tough to deal with it, but I put the team first, and I cheered on the team every chance I got, and when it finally came my time to go back in, I just tried to produce for my team.”
A graduate of South Plainfield High in New Jersey, Downes has started 15 of the 23 games in which he’s appeared and is hitting .343. And now that he finally has his first college home run, he looks forward to smacking many more for the ‘Hoos.
“I miss hitting ’em,” Downes said with a smile. “I used to hit ’em in high school. It felt really good tonight to get it out there.”
Final exams didn’t end at UVa until Friday. But O’Connor was able to schedule a game during one of the reading days, and the Cavaliers’ 12-3 rout of High Point on Wednesday night helped them scrape off some of the rust that built up during their long break.
“The game of baseball’s meant to be played every day, or four or five days a week,” O’Connor said Friday night, “and you’re always concerned, coming off an extended period of time where you don’t play, that the players [could] lose their instincts. The game of baseball is a game of instincts, and certainly playing Wednesday night, I think, helped us tonight and will help us throughout the weekend.”