By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Reed Gragnani enrolled at the University of Virginia in the summer of 2009, not long after graduating from Mills Godwin High School in the Richmond area. Had Gragnani been asked then where he expected to be playing baseball on opening day in 2013, his answer would have been unequivocal: somewhere other than UVa.
“Three years and gone,” Gragnani said Thursday afternoon at Davenport Field when asked about his plan when he entered college.
“I think that’s everybody’s goal, everybody’s dream, when they come to a program of this caliber and have dreams of playing professionally.”
Had Gragnani been able to stay healthy, he might well be playing pro ball now, like Branden Kline, Chris Taylor and Stephen Bruno, three of the players who also entered UVa in 2009. But injuries — to his ankle, to his hip, to his quadriceps — have marred the college career of Gragnani, who appeared in only 99 of a possible 192 games in his first three seasons.
“Seems like every year it’s been something different,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “It’s been unfortunate for him and for our teams that that’s happened.”
And so Gragnani is back for his final season in O’Connor’s program, starting at second base and providing leadership on a team loaded with freshmen and sophomores. That, Gragnani has come to realize, isn’t a bad thing at all.
“From a maturity standpoint, I think there’s only positives that come from me being able to be here for a fourth year,” said Gragnani, a history major. “Being able to get my degree from this type of university is huge. I’ve been able to learn how to value my education, and also on the field my whole perspective’s changed. When something like [a series of injuries] happens to you, every pitch, every at-bat, every inning could be your last. You never know when the game could be taken away from you, so my approach is every pitch, every inning, every moment, I’m trying to treat it as my last.”
Gragnani is hitting .438 for UVa (4-0), which hosts Toledo (1-1) this weekend in a three-game series at Davenport Field, beginning Friday afternoon. Only sophomore Branden Cogswell has a higher batting average on the team than Gragnani and sophomore Brandon Downes (also .438).
On opening day in 2012, Gragnani started in center field for the Wahoos, but he ended up playing only 20 games last season after injuring his left quad. He missed the ACC tournament and then the NCAA regional at Davenport Field, where Oklahoma ousted Virginia as Gragnani watched from the dugout, not yet cleared to return.
After hitting .365 in his 28 games in 2010, Gragnani dipped to .272 as a sophomore. He raised his batting average back to .362 as a junior, but the season took an emotional toll on him, Gragnani recalled, “just going through that whole situation last year where I had high hopes of contributing to the team’s success and also trying to improve my draft stock. That aspect of it, the draft part, wasn’t as tough as watching the guys that I worked so hard with, and had been together for so long with, with the same goal. That was tough for me, to just watch them compete and lose and me not being able to do much on the field.”
In the summer of 2011, Gragnani had played for the Orleans Firebirds in the prestigious Cape Cod League. About two weeks after Virginia’s season ended last year, Gragnani was cleared to play again, and he rejoined the Firebirds. Overall, he had another positive experience in New England.
“I had a couple hiccups there in the summer, related to the [quad] injury,” Gragnani said. “Then when I came back for the fall, I went through a rehab process for two to three weeks, and after that, ever since then I’ve been good to go.”
To try to prevent more injuries, Gragnani said, he stretches more than in years past and does “a lot of flexibility and soft-tissue work.” His regimen is paying dividends. “I feel the best I’ve felt in my career here,” he said.
Gragnani, a switch-hitter since his T-ball days as a boy, played shortstop in high school. Because of his background in the infield, he’s more comfortable at second base than he was in the outfield. His experience makes him especially valuable, given that UVa lost three starting infielders from its 2012 team: Bruno (third base), Taylor (shortstop) and Keith Werman (second base).
“As a player, Reed’s got a calming presence about himself,” O’Connor said. “He knows what’s going on, he knows where to be defensively, he understands situations, he really understands the game. And obviously being a switch-hitter is an advantage. He just has a knack for hitting.”
To look around the field — and the clubhouse — and not see such former classmates as Bruno and Taylor, Gragnani said, is “definitely different, but I’m happy for them. They got a chance to pursue their dreams. It’s a little bit different when you go around and you hang out with some of your teammates and the guys you came in with aren’t there, but part of the business part of this thing is you go for three years, and then if you have an opportunity to [turn pro], you go ahead and pursue that.”
His injuries have made him appreciate the game more, Gragnani said. “I don’t feel any type of pressure, anticipation or anxiousness because it’s my last year here. It’s more I’m hungry to compete and play and do everything I’m capable of to help this team be the best it can be. I think the way I’m feeling now, I can probably help this team as much as I could any other one before.”
That practice can be a grind is no secret. For Gragnani, though, even the most challenging workouts are now something to savor.
“I definitely find myself enjoying every little thing and appreciating every little thing, every time I’m on the field,” he said. “And practice is definitely one of those times … After getting the game taken away by an injury, now when I step on the field I know to never take it for granted.”