CHARLOTTESVILLE — The VCU Rams’ best chance to win Tuesday night at Davenport Field was to catch UVa’s baseball team looking ahead to its much-anticipated showdown with ACC rival North Carolina.
The Cavaliers did not succumb to that temptation, and their coach never worried they would.
“Certainly you could have a little bit of concern with that, with the huge series down in North Carolina this weekend looming,” Brian O’Connor said, “but this team has really taken an attitude all year long of not taking anybody lightly, going out there with something to prove every time we step on the field, and I think that’s had a lot to do with our consistency.”
In its final regular-season home game, seventh-ranked Virginia demolished VCU 17-3 before an appreciative crowd of 3,162. Led by freshman Joe McCarthy, who had four, and sophomore Mike Papi, who had three, the Wahoos collected 17 hits — their sixth straight game with at least 10.
“When the bats are hot, it’s a lot easier to play some defense,” said sophomore Nick Howard, who went 2 for 4, “and pitchers can go out there with the lead, hopefully. Everything kind of just settles down when you know you can count on some runs across the plate.”
The Rams (25-26), who have lost 13 straight in this series, did not strike out any UVa batters.
“We’re really doing the job up and down the lineup,” said Virginia sophomore Derek Fisher, who extended his team-best hitting streak to 10 games with a sixth-inning single.
In their past three games — the first two were victories over Duke — the `Hoos have totaled 48 runs. More remarkable is that they’ve done that without sophomore shortstop Branden Cogswell (.346 batting average), who’s sidelined with a fractured finger.
“Losing Cogs, obviously it [stinks],” Fisher said, “but the way our team is built, we pick each other up, and we’ve showed that it hasn’t really affected us. We’ve missed Cogs, obviously, but we’ve played well and we’ve done pretty well.”
UVa’s challenge is to continue that strong play against second-ranked UNC. In the final regular-season series for both teams, the Cavaliers (43-8 overall, 20-7 ACC) are scheduled to meet the Tar Heels (46-6, 20-5) in Chapel Hill at 6 p.m. Thursday, 7 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday.
To win the Coastal Division, Virginia must sweep the series.
“If it happens, it happens,” Fisher said.
That the series falls on the regular season’s final weekend adds to the drama, O’Connor acknowledged, but “I don’t know that there’s an advantage to it or a disadvantage, quite frankly.”
O’Connor knows, however, that in Chapel Hill his team will get to see “what you have to do to beat a really good club and the kind of clubs that you’re going to have to beat to win an ACC championship, the kind of clubs you’re going to have to beat to win a national championship. And so I think it’ll be a very, very good test for us.”
This is O’Connor’s 10th season at UVa, and his team is a lock to advance to the NCAA tournament for the 10th straight time. The `Hoos are also well-positioned to earn one of the top eight national seeds in the NCAA tourney, which would assure them of hosting a super regional if they were to advance that far.
“We try to take things one at a time,” O’Connor said. “Our goal in front of us right now is to have a chance to win a league championship in the regular season. I think everybody knows what that’s going to take. We can’t go down there with the attitude that we’re trying to sweep North Carolina. We’re going to try to win Thursday. And if we happen to win Thursday and then we happen to win Friday and we’re in that position on Saturday, we’ll go for it. But that’s not a reality unless you win Game 1.
“Keeping the whole picture in perspective, certainly the body of work that we’ve put together up until this point is deserving of really good things when it comes to NCAA tournament time. But we want to try to win a regular-season championship. That’s going to take a great effort from everybody on our club, and we’ll see what happens.”
Virginia received great efforts from numerous players Tuesday night, including Howard, who moved from third base to shortstop after Cogswell broke his finger. Howard belted a three-run home run over the left-field wall in the first inning, and he was flawless in the field, with five assists.
“I thought Nick played a great shortstop tonight,” O’Connor said. “That was great to see. I do think it’s a matter of just getting more reps there. He’s really athletic … I think the more he plays there, the more consistent he’ll be, and he’ll be our shortstop down in the North Carolina series.”
Howard, a 6-3, 215-pound right-hander, has been the Cavaliers’ Sunday starter, and he could get the ball in the finale at UNC. Still, O’Connor said, if “I was a gambling man I’d tell you he’s probably not going to pitch and we’re going to look at another option. But that’s not because he’s pitching poorly. It’s more that I think the guy needs to settle in and be our shortstop.”
UVa used seven pitchers Tuesday, beginning with redshirt junior Whit Mayberry. In his first start of the season, Mayberry worked 2.2 innings and earned the win. Then came, in order, Nathan Kirby, Josh Sborz, Trey Oest, Brett Lisle, David Rosenberger and Austin Young.
Lisle’s appearance enlivened a game whose outcome had long since been decided. A 6-9, 210-pound redshirt freshman from Highlands Ranch, Colo., Lisle faced the leadoff batter in the eighth, Cody Acker. The left-handed Lisle slickly fielded Acker’s comebacker and threw him out at first. O’Connor then walked to the mound and, after briefly conferring with Lisle, motioned for freshman lefty David Rosenbeger to come out of the bullpen.
Lisle has made only two appearances for UVa, but he’s already a fan favorite at Davenport. Lisle left to a loud ovation from the crowd, and good-natured boos accompanied O’Connor on his walk back to the dugout.
“I don’t know what it is with Brett Lisle, [fans’] affinity for him,” O’Connor said, smiling. “Maybe because he’s 6-foot-9, he’s a sidearmed left-handed pitcher, I don’t know. But I didn’t worry about that.
“Four weeks ago, Brett Lisle threw over the top. Four weeks ago, we dropped him down to sidearm, to give him a chance to compete, and thought maybe he might be able to get a few left-handed hitters out. That was the situation [in the eighth].
“I said, `We’re going to have him face one batter, and then we’re going to go to Rosenberger.’ I am happy that our fans are that passionate that they still know what’s going on enough to boo me for taking a pitcher out.”
Against a UNC pitching staff whose ERA is 2.39, the runs aren’t likely to come easily for the `Hoos as in recent games. And that figures to increase the importance of pitching and defense, the cornerstones of O’Connor’s program.
“It’s huge to get the hits that we’ve been getting, but you can’t really rely on that every night,” Fisher said. “Playing teams like North Carolina, with the pitching they have, you can’t rely on getting 20 hits a night.”