By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On Feb. 17, opening day found close friends Stephen Bruno and Reed Gragnani in the starting lineup for UVa’s baseball team: Bruno at third base and Gragnani in center field.
Some three months later, the roommates have matching .362 batting averages, the highest on the team. But their junior seasons have followed different paths. Bruno has appeared in 55 games and had 224 at-bats. Gragnani has been limited to 20 games (and 69 at-bats) by an injury to his left quadriceps.
When he’s healthy, the 6-0, 175-pound Gragnani is one of the Cavaliers’ most dangerous hitters. He proved that in 2010, when he batted .365 as a part-time player, and again last year, when he hit .272 and started 41 games for a team that advanced to the College World Series. Staying healthy, though, has proved difficult for the former Mills Godwin High School star, who missed nearly 20 games with a leg injury in 2011.
“My heart goes out for Reed Gragnani,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said Tuesday afternoon at Davenport Field.
“I know how hard he’s worked. I know how much this game means to him. I think he’s one heck of a player, and he’s just fallen on some tough times. It’s unfortunate, but there will be a day that he’ll be back and really contribute to this program’s success. Maybe it’ll be this year. We’ll see. Maybe it won’t be till next year. I feel bad for him, because we had such high expectations for him, and I know he did also, and I know he’ll make some contributions moving forward.”
Gragnani, who’s from the Richmond area, hasn’t given up on this season. The NCAA tournament begins this weekend, and Virginia is seeded No. 1 in the four-team regional at Davenport Field. UVa (38-17-1) opens Friday at 4 p.m. against No. 4 seed Army (41-13), the Patriot League champion.
Rounding out the double-elimination regional are No. 2 seed Oklahoma (38-22) and No. 3 seed Appalachian State (39-16).
“I think I’ll be available this weekend,” Gragnani said Tuesday night. “That’s the goal. I have a feeling there’s going to be a situation where I’m needed.”
The Wahoos had an intrasquad scrimmage Tuesday, and Gragnani played in the field and batted. But he was careful not to extend himself too much running the bases or on defense.
“He’s started to do a little bit more in practice,” O’Connor said Tuesday. “I would like to have him available as an option, maybe to pinch-hit coming off the bench or something like that. But we’ll see. Today was a big day for him … He did more today than he’s done in a long time, and I think we’ll know more [Wednesday] on how he’s feeling.”
Immediately after the scrimmage, Gragnani headed down to the McCue Center for a session in the training room’s cold pool. “I’m not sore at all from the scrimmage,” Gragnani said a few hours later, but he knows he has more hurdles to clear in his rehab.
“My leg’s plenty strong,” he said. “I can lift and do everything and not get sore. Now it’s trying to build endurance with it so I can take on a weekend series and not be sore, and make explosive movements coming out of the box.”
Gragnani first hurt his quad Feb. 28 in a midweek game against Liberty. “We just thought that my hip flexor was tight,” he recalled, and he returned to the lineup about a week later.
In late March, however, he slipped out of the batter’s box during an at-bat and felt “a miniature pop” in his quad, Gragnani said. He had torn a muscle. Gragnani missed about seven weeks before returning for the May 19 regular-season finale at Maryland.
He started in right field and went 1 for 2 before discomfort in his quad ended his day early. “Coach Oak told me if I felt anything he was going to get me out,” said Gragnani, who then sat out UVa’s three games in the ACC tournament.
During his three seasons as a Cavalier, Gragnani has played first base, second base, third base, left field, right field and center field, as well as designated hitter. Of his teammates, perhaps Bruno is the most empathetic. He played in only seven games in 2011 before a severe hamstring injury ended his sophomore season.
“Stephen and I are best friends, and we were roommates in summer school coming in our freshman year,” Gragnani said. “Seeing what he went through killed me last year, and I know he feels bad. He’s been supportive of me.”
Bruno said: “Reed’s a phenomenal player and obviously can contribute a lot for our club, and it’s just frustrating, because I went through it. But you know what? Reed has stayed positive through everything and helped the team any way he could.”
Gragnani played for the Orleans Firebirds in the prestigious Cape Cod League last summer, and his performance there raised his Major League Baseball draft stock. Pro baseball no longer is a viable option for him this year, but Gragnani isn’t feeling sorry for himself.
“I try to keep things in perspective,” he said. “Yeah, it stinks, but I’ve grown a lot as a person and a player, even though I haven’t been on the field.
“I’m a man of great faith, too. I’m glad this happened to me, because I know I can handle it and get back on the field and be a better player.
“I know I’ll be back. It isn’t career-ending. It’s just a muscle.”
TBA: On a teleconference Tuesday afternoon, O’Connor said he has yet to choose a starting pitcher for the NCAA tournament opener against Army. The Cavaliers’ most consistent starters have been junior Branden Kline (6-3, 3.68 ERA) and sophomore Artie Lewicki (4-2, 3.33).
The UVa-Army winner will move on to face Oklahoma or Appalachian State in a pivotal game Saturday night.
“But make no mistake about it: Army is the only team we’re thinking about right now,” O’Connor said. “We’re going to go with the guy that we feel gives us the best chance to win Game 1.
“I don’t anticipate us so-called ‘pitching off’ or anything like. I’ve got too much respect for the kind of club that Army has. So we’re going to pitch the guy that we believe has the best chance to beat them, not looking at the rest of the tournament. But I’ve still got to get that figured out. [The Black Knights have] some good left-handed hitters in their lineup. They steal a lot of bases. All those factors play into what we’re going to do.”
Army is expected to go with its ace, right-hander Chris Rowley. The 6-1, 195-pound junior is 11-0 with a 1.97 ERA. Batters are hitting only .186 against Rowley.
The schedule for the Charlottesville regional:
Game 1 — Virginia vs. Army, 4 p.m. Friday
Game 2 –– Oklahoma vs. Appalachian State, 8 p.m. Friday
Game 3 — Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 1 p.m.
Game 4 — Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 6 p.m. Saturday
Game 5 — Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 1 p.m.
Game 6 –– Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 4, 6 p.m. Sunday
Game 7 (if necessary) — Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6, 6 p.m. Monday