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April 1, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the UVa baseball team, the goal is to win every game, sweep every series. In college baseball, that’s an unattainable objective, but the Cavaliers haven’t missed the mark by much this year.

A little past the midpoint of the regular season, fifth-ranked Virginia is 25-3 and has won all four of its ACC series, taking at least two of three games from Maryland, Clemson and NC State and, now, Miami.

“That’s pretty special,” head coach Brian O’Connor said Sunday. “They aren’t many people that are winning at that clip. But it’s important that we continue to play good baseball and continue to learn and grow as a club.”

On a wet Easter afternoon at Davenport Field, the Wahoos suffered a rare defeat. After a first inning in which O’Connor was ejected by home-plate umpire Tom Baldinelli for disputing a questionable call, UVa allowed no runs and only one hit the rest of the way. But the four runs Miami scored in the first held up, as the Hurricanes held on for a 4-3 victory that ended Virginia’s nine-game winning streak.

UVa (9-3 ACC) had pounded the `Canes 15-4 on Friday night and 8-1 the next afternoon and came into Sunday’s game looking to complete the sweep.

“It’s definitely a sour taste in our mouth right now, but the good thing about baseball is that we get to play again on Tuesday,” sophomore Nick Howard said.

Virginia takes on Liberty (17-11) in Lynchburg that evening. When the teams met March 13 in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers won 7-2. The rematch at the Flames’ new 2,500-seat stadium is sold out, and “it will be a great atmosphere down there,” O’Connor said.

UVa returns home to face VMI at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Then comes a weekend series at Wake Forest. Of the four ACC series Virginia will play this month, three (Wake, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech) are on the road.

“We’ve got some serious challenges in front of us,” O’Connor said, “so we’ll learn a lot more about our club, I think, in the next four weekends.”

O’Connor had to watch the final 8½ innings of Sunday’s game from the clubhouse on a video stream. With none out and Miami runners on first and second in the top of the first inning, Baldinelli called a ball after a checked swing by Chantz Mack on a 3-2 pitch from Howard. O’Connor vigorously disagreed, and Baldinelli ejected the Cavaliers’ coach, to the displeasure of the fans at Davenport Field, who were already unhappy with the umpiring crew’s work.

“Unfortunately, league rules are such that I can’t comment on it,” O’Connor said afterward, “other than overall there was a lot to overcome in this game, and we just didn’t overcome it.”

By the time Howard retired the side in the first, Miami had four hits and four runs. The sophomore right-hander acknowledged after the game that the controversial call rattled him.

“But it’s my job to overcome that,” he said. “Some calls weren’t going either team’s way, and we both had to deal with that today. I should be better, and I should be there for my team more.

“Obviously it’s nice that the coach has your back, but again, it’s still my job to throw strikes for my team and keep `em in the game.”

UVa pulled to 4-2 in the second on a two-RBI double to right by senior second baseman Reed Gragnani. The Cavaliers scored another run in the sixth, when Miami shortstop Alex Hernandez misplayed a grounder from freshman Joe McCarthy. In the third and again in the fourth, however, the `Hoos left the bases loaded, and they stranded 13 runners in all Sunday.

Howard, who took the loss, was the second UVa starting pitcher to struggle in this series. (Freshman left-hander Brandon Waddell lasted only three innings Friday night.) But relievers Austin Young, Nathan Kirby, Josh Sborz and Kyle Crockett allowed only one baserunner among them Sunday, and Virginia’s bullpen did not allow a run in the series.

“That was great to see,” O’Connor said Sunday. “And then it comes down to whether you get those clutch hits or not. We’ve been getting those clutch hits. That’s why we’ve been winning so many games. We didn’t get ’em today.”

Gragnani said: “We always talk about overcoming adversity, whether it’s in practice or anything we do. So none of us panicked or anything like that [after the first inning]. We knew there was a long game left. We didn’t feel like four runs was enough for them. But it was, and we’ll bounce back.”

This is O’Connor’s 10th season at UVa, where his record is a staggering 436-152-2. The Cavaliers finished 39-19-1 in 2012, and from that team O’Connor lost pitchers Branden Kline, Shane Halley and Justin Thompson, third baseman Stephen Bruno, shortstop Chris Taylor and second baseman Keith Werman, among others. Moreover, one of Virginia’s returning pitchers, Artie Lewicki, is recovering from Tommy John surgery and has yet to play this season.

Because of all that roster turnover, the `Hoos were not ranked in many preseason polls. Once again, though, they appear capable of contending for the ACC title.

The key, O’Connor said Sunday, has been “the consistency of our pitching staff. I don’t think you can judge us by Brandon Waddell and Nick Howard’s starts this weekend. I think you look at the whole body of work, and how the guys in the bullpen have kind of started to define their roles. A lot of their roles coming into the year were not defined, and we were going to kind of figure it out as we moved along. After two or three weeks of the season, those guys in that bullpen started gravitating to some roles, and now I think you got some really great options out of that bullpen.”

As a team, Virginia is batting .315. Standouts at the plate have included sophomores Mike Papi (.472), Branden Cogswell (.377), Brandon Downes (.321), Howard (.318), Nate Irving (.313) and Derek Fisher (.306). McCarthy is batting .313. Gragnani (.286) had nine RBI in the Miami series.

“I like our lineup,” O’Connor said. “We showed that we can certainly score runs from different points in our lineup. [Saturday] it was the bottom of the lineup. Other days it’s the top of the lineup. A sign of a good ball club is you’re not just depending on three or four players to do the run production for you.”

And now, after a frustrating end to the Miami series, the Cavaliers’ “motivation has to be just to go out there and continue to play good, hard-nosed baseball,” O’Connor said. “It’s been a trademark in this program for years that we’ve responded well to difficult times. When we have lost series or we’ve lost a game, our guys traditionally bounced back, and I’ve got confidence in them to do that.”

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