By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — With an extended break for final exams looming, the UVa baseball team closed April in emphatic fashion, pounding VCU 11-3 in Richmond on the final day of the month.
The victory was the 39th of the season for the seventh-ranked Cavaliers, who have lost only eight times. Only twice in Brian O’Connor’s illustrious tenure as Virginia’s head coach has his team had more victories heading into finals: in 2010 (40 wins) and 2011 (43 wins).
This is O’Connor’s 10th season at UVa, where his record is 450-157-2, with nine trips to the NCAA tournament and two appearances in the College Word Series. Even by its lofty standards, Virginia has played exceptionally well, especially for a team dominated by underclassmen.
“The exciting thing for us has been the level of consistency that we’ve played at throughout the entire year,” O’Connor said. “I made no bones about it coming into the year: I felt that we had really good talent. We just lacked experience, and when you lack experience, you don’t really know how consistent you’re going to be. And that’s been the real bright spot for me, the consistency we’ve played with the whole year.”
The Wahoos have dropped back-to-back games only twice this season. They have not lost more than two games in a row.
“I feel great about where we’re at,” O’Connor said. “I really like our team.”
Finals, which started last week at UVa, run through Friday. With the end of the exam period comes the resumption of baseball season for UVa, which hosts Duke in an ACC series this weekend at Davenport Field.
The teams are scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.
The `Hoos have practiced intermittently during exams, a break O’Connor said can “a real positive for us, in that we’ve pretty much played the same 10 position players all year long and have been using the same four or five guys out of our bullpen. Our rotations remain the same. We can use this time to kind of get our legs back underneath us for this final push in the regular season.”
Virginia hosts VCU at Davenport Field on May 14. The Cavaliers then close the regular season with a three-game series against top-ranked North Carolina, May 16-18 in Chapel Hill.
“We’ve had a great regular season up until this point,” O’Connor said. “A lot of times you don’t want to take a break, but I think this team has shown some good maturity for being as young as it is. I’m not as concerned about this group losing their instincts or anything like that.”
Of Virginia’s starting position players, seven are hitting .298 or better: sophomores Mike Papi (.389), Branden Cogswell (.346), Nick Howard (.331), Brandon Downes (.316) and Derek Fisher (.313), freshman Joe McCarthy (.311) and fifth-year senior Jared King (.298).
UVa’s weekend starters — freshman Brandon Waddell, fifth-year senior Scott Silverstein and Howard — are 4-1, 7-1 and 5-4, respectively.
Out of the bullpen, junior Kyle Crockett, one of the nation’s premier closers, is 3-0 with a 0.93 earned-run average. Virginia’s other relievers include junior Austin Young (5-0, 0.96), redshirt junior Whit Mayberry (3-0, 1.31) and freshman Josh Sborz (3-0, 1.86).
Mayberry’s third season at UVa ended prematurely when he suffered an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery on April 3, 2012. Little more than 10 months later, Mayberry made his 2013 debut for the Cavaliers.
“He’s still not back from a velocity standpoint to where he was last year at the beginning of the year,” O’Connor said, “but his stuff’s really good, and he’s given us some great, valuable innings, and he’s doing a tremendous job. His progress has gone really, really well.”
Freshman pitchers have played prominent roles for Virginia this season, from Waddell to Sborz to David Rosenberger to Trey Oest to Nathan Kirby. Of Virginia’s freshman position players, however, only McCarthy has started more than four games.
Another newcomer, catcher Robbie Coman, would have played more had he been healthy. Coman suffered an early-season injury that sidelined him for about five weeks. For three other freshmen — infielders John LaPrise and George Ragsdale and outfielder Rob Bennie — having so many talented, experienced teammates has limited their opportunities this spring.
“They just need to continue to learn the game at this level, the speed of the game and things like that,” O’Connor said. “They just need to continue to develop. They’re good players. If something happened, I have confidence that we could plug them in the game and we’d be fine.”
The ACC tournament begins May 22 in Durham, N.C. Then comes the NCAA tournament, for which UVa is a lock. The Cavaliers are hitting .307, and this ranks among the most potent offensive teams O’Connor has coached. How far the `Hoos advance this postseason may well hinge on their starting pitching.
“You can go back and look at the conference series that we’ve had success in,” O’Connor said, “and those are when two of the three starters on a weekend have pitched into the sixth, seventh inning. That’s no secret. That’s the case with anybody.
“I think our bullpen is as good as it’s ever been here in our 10 years. And so it’s a matter of getting enough of a quality start out of our guys consistently to hand the back part of the game over to that bullpen.”