'Hoos Have Holes to Fill as Fall Ball Begins
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Fall practice for the University of Virginia baseball team begins Saturday at The Park.
At 8 a.m.
“It’s important that the players go to the football game,” coach Brian O’Connor said, referring to the UVa-Penn State clash that starts at noon at Scott Stadium.
Moreover, O’Connor said with a smile, “I want to go to the football game.”
O’Connor and assistant coaches Kevin McMullan and Karl Kuhn are heading into their 10th season together at Virginia, where they have built one of the nation’s most successful programs. During O’Connor’s tenure, the Cavaliers are 411-149-2, with nine trips to the NCAA tournament and two appearances in the College World Series.
In Davenport Field, the Wahoos have a spectacular stadium. But it’s been a construction site for the past two months, as a new irrigation and field-drainage system, as well as a sand-based grass playing surface, have been installed. Other upgrades include a new synthetic warning track, new floors in the dugouts and a new FieldTurf collar behind home plate.
“It’s been really interesting,” O’Connor said. “You play baseball, you coach baseball, but you never really know actually what goes into the construction of a great baseball playing surface, and so out my office window, every so often when I’m in town, I get to see what goes into this thing, and it is a major project.”
The improvements, which cost $1 million, were sorely needed at a park that regularly hosts NCAA tournament games.
“The cosmetic part wasn’t why the decision was made, because we had a beautiful ballpark from the start,” O’Connor said. “We just had a serious issue out here with our drainage, and it was impacting games, and whether we’d be able to play games or not, or how long after rain we’d be able to play. So this will solve those issues.”
For about two weeks, while work on Davenport is completed, the Cavaliers will practice on the turf fields at The Park. That’s where the team took pregame batting practice in June during the NCAA tournament’s Charlottesville Regional, O’Connor said, so it’s not a major inconvenience.
The `Hoos are coming off a season in which they finished 39-19-1 after losing to Oklahoma in the NCAA regional at Davenport. Among the players O’Connor must replace from that team are pitchers Branden Kline, Shane Halley and Justin Thompson, third baseman Stephen Bruno, shortstop Chris Taylor and second baseman Keith Werman.
Virginia also will be without right-handed pitcher Artie Lewicki in 2013. Lewicki, who went 4-3 with a 3.82 earned-run average last season, injured his elbow this summer and is recovering from Tommy John surgery. He would have been UVa’s top returning starter in `13.
“With losing Branden Kline (7-3) and Shane Halley (9-2), the wins between those two guys, and Justin Thompson as the closer, and now you take Artie out of the mix, certainly there’s a lot of work to be done on the staff,” O’Connor said.
The Cavaliers’ first-year class includes eight pitchers: left-handers Kevin Doherty, Nate Kirby, David Rosenberger and Brandon Waddell, and right-handers Tyler Carrico, Trey Oest, Josh Sborz and Cameron Tekker. If the team is to be successful, O’Connor said, several of those newcomers will have to contribute immediately.
“Never to this degree have we had so many opportunities for a freshman to come in and make an impact [on the mound],” O’Connor said. “But I think there’s the talent in that group, at least based on what we saw through recruiting, to make that kind of impact.”
Early last season, UVa’s weekend rotation included right-hander Whit Mayberry, and he went 2-0, with a 3.67 ERA, before suffering an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in early April.
Mayberry’s rehab is going well, O’Connor said Friday. “He’ll be throwing and things this fall. He won’t pitch competitively in the fall, but he’s projected to be back at the start of the season.”
Virginia’s first-year class is known for the quality and depth of its pitching, but O’Connor said position players such as John LaPrise, George Ragsdale, Robert Coman, Joe McCarthy and Robert Bennie could contribute in 2013, too.
LaPrise and Ragsdale are middle infielders. Coman catches, and McCarthy and Bennie can play outfield and first base.
Eight players who started at least 26 games each last season are back: senior Jared King, juniors Colin Harrington and Mitchell Shifflett, and sophomores Derek Fisher, Nate Irving, Brandon Downes, Mike Papi and Branden Cogswell. Other returning players include promising sophomores Kenny Towns (.294) and Nick Howard (.346).
Towns could be used at DH, first base or second base. Howard went 3-0 with a 2.81 ERA last season and will probably have a role as a pitcher in 2013. For now, though, he’ll focus on playing third base.
“I just want to concentrate in the fall on giving him full opportunity to show everybody what he’s capable of doing on the infield,” O’Connor said.
Senior Reed Gragnani is healthy again, and that’s good news for Virginia. Gragnani has battled injuries throughout his college career, but he hit .362 last season and could start at second base, DH or in the outfield.
At catcher, Irving will face competition from Coman and Downes, who was not used behind the plate last season.
“Nate Irving did a fantastic job last year,” O’Connor said, “but part of what has built this program is competition. Sure, you draw confidence from what you did last year, but in all fairness to everybody, it’s open competition.”
Likewise, O’Connor said, junior left-hander Kyle Crockett (5-2, 2.25) is likely to be one of Virginia’s starters, but this fall “he’s going to pitch like everybody else, and we’ll see how it all shakes out.
“We don’t even really worry about [roles] in the fall. We just kind of pitch them all the same, and then after the fall you say, `All right, what are we looking at? Are some of these freshmen candidates to start?’
`Certainly it’d be easy to say, `OK, Kyle Crockett is a starter,’ and there’s probably a pretty good chance that that happens. But in all fairness to everybody, we make it very clear at the beginning of every year that it’s open competition. We do that in the fall and see where it shakes out.”
Thirty of Crockett’s 32 appearances came in relief last season. With Lewicki out, Virginia’s only returning weekend starter is senior left-hander Scott Silverstein, who went 2-5, with a 4.48 ERA, is his first full season as a college pitcher.
Silverstein, who had two major shoulder operations after a stellar career at St. John’s College High School in D.C., struggled late last season, but that didn’t surprise O’Connor.
“Expectations for him will certainly be higher this year,” O’Connor said. “Last year was kind of, `OK, we’ve got to milk him along.’ The fall’s going to be important for him, and I look for him to take a little step forward this year.”
The grind of pitching week after week might have affected Silverstein, O’Connor said. “I don’t know necessarily that he wore down, but there’s a mental part of it, where you have to make adjustments and things like that, and it’s over such a long period of time. Last year he was basically going through what freshmen go through. You see sometimes with freshman pitchers, their results can be erratic because they haven’t gone through it before. Well, that was the case for him.”
Virginia’s options in the outfield include Harrington, Shifflett, Fisher and Papi. Fisher hit .288 and led the `Hoos with seven home runs last season. Papi batted .283, but his production dipped dramatically as the season went on, partly because of a serious back injury.
“The guy could hardly move,” O’Connor said.
Papi is healthy again, O’Connor said, and “obviously this is an important fall for him, because some other guys emerged last year on the back half of the year, so he’s got some work to do.”
O’Connor noted that his 10th team is probably the youngest he’s had at UVa. The 35-man roster will include 15 freshmen and 10 sophomores.
“I think the talent level is good,” he said. “I just think that, other than at some of those outfield spots, and Irving and King [at first base], there’s not a lot of experience.”
The Cavaliers will play three exhibition games at Davenport this fall, including two against college teams. All of the games — which don’t count toward UVa’s 2013 record — are free and open to the public. Virginia is scheduled to host the Ontario Blue Jays on Sept. 22, Towson on Sept. 29, and Georgetown on Oct. 21.
“I just felt that that was really important this fall, because of our youth, to play somebody else in another uniform,” O’Connor said, “and we’ll hopefully get really good crowds.”
The Ontario and Georgetown games will have 1 p.m. starts. The starting time for the exhibition with Towson will be announced once kickoff is set for the UVa-Louisiana Tech football game at Scott Stadium that day.
The `Hoos also will play a five-game Orange and Blue World Series at Davenport, starting Oct. 3.
“It’s exciting,” O’Connor said. “We got a new field going down that we’re looking forward to getting on. We got a lot of new guys. Certainly this fall there’ll be a lot of teaching going on and a lot of competition and trying to get guys to mature and understand what it takes.”