By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In a meeting room outside the home clubhouse at Davenport Field, UVa baseball coach Brian O’Connor’s players serenaded him Sunday with a rousing version of “Happy Birthday.”
About 15 minutes earlier, Virginia had completed its first-ever series sweep of Florida State, winning 5-2 before a capacity crowd of 4,980 on a chilly spring afternoon.
“Pretty good present, certainly,” said O’Connor, who turned 42 on Sunday.
This is the skipper’s 10th season at UVa, where he’s compiled an extraordinary record of 446-155-2, with nine appearances in the NCAA tournament and two trips to the College World Series. Coming into this series, the Cavaliers had swept 10 of their ACC counterparts at least once during O’Connor’s tenure. The exception was Florida State, a perennial power under its legendary coach, Mike Martin.
Check FSU off the list. The seventh-ranked Wahoos defeated the No. 5 Seminoles 9-2 and 2-0 in a Saturday doubleheader, then delivered the coup de grace Sunday. Virginia (35-6 overall, 16-5 ACC) never trailed in a series that drew a program-record 13,890 fans to Davenport.
“I think it’s a huge accomplishment,” O’Connor said. “Florida State has one of the most respected baseball programs in this country. Coach Martin is as good of a person as there is in college baseball. They do a great job.”
The `Noles swept the `Hoos in Tallahassee, Fla., last season.
“We’ve had some pretty good teams here over the years,” O’Connor said, “and the fact that it’s the first time we’ve won all three of them [in a series against FSU] says something about the quality of opponent that they are and the type of program that they have. But this weekend was defined by really high-caliber pitching.”
Freshman left-hander Brandon Waddell went six innings and got the win in the series opener Saturday afternoon. Another lefty, fifth-year senior Scott Silverstein, allowed one hit in seven innings in the second game Saturday and improved to 7-0.
Sophomore right-hander Nick Howard struggled early Sunday but settled down, scattering five hits in 6.2 innings.
“I just felt that for us to continue to move forward as a team, with this year’s team, it was going to take our starters going out there and pitching deeper into the ball game,” O’Connor said. “We’ve been inconsistent with that, but certainly we got that in all three starts this weekend, and it shows what you can do if you can get those guys to pitch into the sixth and seventh inning.”
For Howard, who plays third base when he’s not on the mound, it was his second-longest appearance of the season. In 2012, he was exclusively a reliever. Now he’s the Cavaliers’ Sunday starter.
“I think Nick has really progressed through this year as a starter,” O’Connor said. “We all know that he did a tremendous job in our bullpen last year, but it’s different as a starter.”
In the first inning Sunday, the `Noles (31-9, 13-8) loaded the bases against the 6-3, 215-pound Howard, but he retired Jameis Winston on a fly ball for the third out. In the second, FSU had runners on first and second with one out, but Howard got Seth Miller to fly out and then struck out DJ Stewart to end the threat.
“The important thing is, in those first two innings he made the big pitches to pitch himself out of it, and he buckled down, and that’s what you like to see,” O’Connor said. “Nick’s a competitor, and he’s going to be his best when we need him to. That was a tremendous start for him. After throwing a lot of pitches in the first couple of innings, he settled in there after the third inning and kind of held them down.”
FSU scored in the fourth and the seventh (off reliever Nathan Kirby). Virginia struck first, and hardest, taking a 4-0 lead in the third. With senior Reed Gragnani on third and sophomore Kenny Towns on second after a flawless sacrifice bunt by sophomore Nate Irving, the Seminoles chose to intentionally walk sophomore Brandon Cogswell, loading the bases with one out.
That brought up fifth-year senior Jared King, who on Wednesday night had lifted Virginia to a 10-9 victory over ODU with a walk-off single in the 10th inning.
This time King cleared the bases with a double to right off FSU starter Scott Sitz, a right-hander who entered the game with a 7-0 record and a 1.04 earned-run average. King advanced to third when Winston, who’s likely to start at quarterback for Florida State’s football team in the fall, fumbled the ball while trying to pick it up on the warning track. King then came home on a sacrifice fly by the next batter, freshman Joe McCarthy.
McCarthy, a left-hander who leads UVa’s position players with a .376 batting average, did not finish the game. In the top of the fifth, he sprinted to catch a fly ball and in the process injured his throwing hand on the brick wall in foul territory near the right-field line. The 6-3, 225-pound McCarthy remained in the game, but after he struck out in the bottom of the fifth, O’Connor replaced him in right with sophomore Mike Papi, who moved over from left field. Sophomore Derek Fisher, who began the game as UVa’s designated hitter, went to left.
“Joe did not dislocate his finger,” O”Connor said. “I just think he jammed it pretty good … I just figured that it wasn’t in his best interest or our best interest to keep him in the ball game. We’ll know more [Monday] and as the week moves on.”
With no DH in the lineup, Virginia had to bat its pitcher. By the time the Cavaliers’ 3-hole hitter came to the plate again, to start the eighth, the bat was in the hands of Kyle Crockett. Yes, that Kyle Crockett, the junior left-hander who has become perhaps the nation’s premier closer.
At Poquoson High School, Crockett hit .443 as a junior and .448 as a senior. At UVa, he’d never had an at-bat before Sunday. He hadn’t even taken batting practice this year.
“I haven’t faced live pitching since high school,” Crockett said.
O’Connor told him to stand at the plate and take pitches. “I just didn’t want to see him get hurt,” O’Connor said. But Crockett had other ideas.
“I didn’t really have anything to lose,” he said. “I was going to go out there and, if I got a fastball, swing at it.”
With the count 2-2, FSU closer Robby Coles tried to blow a fastball by Crockett. Crockett smacked it back up the middle for a single, to the delight of the crowd and, especially, his teammates and coaches. He eventually scored from second on a single by Papi.
“It’s not that big of a deal to me,” Crockett said in his customary aw-shucks manner. “I think I got more lucky than anything.”
On the mound, Crockett dominated, as he has done all this season. In picking up his ninth save, he pitched the last two innings, striking out four, walking none and allowing only one hit.
Crockett’s ERA dropped to 0.55. He’s fanned 42 in his 33 innings, with only one walk, and that was intentional. Crockett also pitched the final two innings in Saturday’s second game.
What Crockett has done as a pitcher this year “is pretty special,” O’Connor said. It was more fun Sunday, though, to talk about Crockett’s prowess at the plate.
“I think I’m going to have to start going to him for some advice,” said Howard, who’s batting .304. “He’s taking over my role.”
At the postgame press conference Sunday, Crockett preceded O’Connor in front of the cameras and tape recorders. As O’Connor walked to the front of the room, he told reporters, “You just got done talking to our next in a long line of great two-way players here,” a group whose members include Joe Koshansky, Sean Doolittle, Danny Hultzen and, now, Howard.
Crockett is hitting 1.000, and “he might leave here with that batting average,” O’Connor said, smiling.
UVa will play two midweek games at Davenport Field — Tuesday against Richmond and Wednesday against JMU — before heading to Blacksburg for a weekend series with Virginia Tech.
“Obviously this was a big weekend, but there’s a lot left to play, a lot left to play for,” O’Connor said. He acknowledged, though, the significance of his team’s sweep of FSU.
“This was a NCAA regional/super regional type of environment, and I was so happy to see how our players handled it,” O’Connor said.
“What we did this weekend is what you have to do to win a regional. You gotta win three games in a row against good teams that have earned it, and Florida State’s got a very good team. Maybe we can draw something from that, the confidence that we can have a chance to do something special as we move forward.”