By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
DURHAM, N.C. — UVa baseball coach Brian O’Connor called it a “difficult loss,” and that was an understatement. Virginia, which entered the ACC tournament with a 45-9 record, suffered its most one-sided loss of the season Wednesday, falling 10-1 to sixth-seeded Virginia Tech.
About 17 hours after the end of that game, the third-seeded Cavaliers took the field again at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, this time to face No. 7 seed Georgia Tech.
The quick turnaround was good for fifth-ranked UVa, sophomore Kenny Towns said Thursday afternoon, “because obviously we were disappointed with the loss yesterday, and that gave us a chance to come out and prove how good of a team we are and show that we can still win.”
The Yellow Jackets felt the force of Virginia’s wrath. The Wahoos matched their season high with three home runs — two came on consecutive at-bats by sophomores Nick Howard and Towns in the top of the fourth inning — and blasted the Jackets 8-2 to move into contention for a berth in Sunday’s championship game.
“Seeing what we did today excites you about what can happen in the future,” UVa coach Brian O’Connor said.
Howard, like many of his teammates, had struggled against the Hokies, going 0 for 4 and committing a costly throwing error. He redeemed himself Thursday, going 2 for 4 with two RBI and making the necessary plays at third base.
“That’s the great thing about baseball: You have one bad day, and you have the opportunity to go out there and respond the next day,” Howard said.
UVa’s final game in the Pool B round-robin is Saturday at 11 a.m., against second-seeded Florida State. FSU, which opened with a loss to Georgia Tech on Wednesday, was scheduled to play Virginia Tech on Thursday night.
Redshirt junior right-hander Whit Mayberry (4-0, 1.67 ERA) will start Saturday against the `Noles, whom the Cavaliers swept in a three-game series at Davenport Field last month.
If Mayberry can come close to matching the performance Scott Silverstein turned in against Georgia Tech (34-24), Virginia’s chances of winning will improve significantly Saturday.
“That’s certainly a memorable outing for him, in his last ACC tournament,” O’Connor said of Silverstein, a fifth-year senior. “Hopefully down the road, in the remainder of his career at Virginia, he has more outings like that. We’d love to see that. He certainly rose up for his team. That’s what this thing is about: the difficulty of yesterday and then responding.”
Silverstein, a 6-6 left-hander, threw a career-high 8.2 innings Thursday to earn his second win over the Jackets this season. He scattered 10 hits, struck out six and walked only two.
“He pitched great against us in Atlanta, and then after the first inning today really settled down and pitched well,” Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said.
In the bottom of the first, leadoff batter Kyle Wren smashed a triple off Silverstein, and Brandon Thomas followed with an RBI single. Zane Evans singled, too, but was thrown out trying to stretch it to a double. Silverstein then got All-ACC first-team Daniel Palka to hit into a double play, and the `Hoos could exhale.
The Jackets “came out of the gates hot, and it was really big to at least maintain it to one run,” sophomore center-fielder Brandon Downes said. “For a second there I was like, “What’s going on here?’ But Scott stayed calm and he made his pitches and he got us out of it.”
It was not an auspicious start for Silverstein, but he didn’t panic. “I was thinking, `It’s early and you need to move on and there’s a lot of game left.’ I knew we were going to make plays behind me and we were going to score runs, so it’s just about turning the page and moving on.”
Virginia didn’t get its first hit off starter Dusty Isaacs until the third inning, when sophomore catcher Nate Irving led off with a double. His teammates followed his lead, pounding Georgia Tech’s pitching.
“It’s a momentum game,” Howard said, “and so he definitely gave us some momentum going into the rest of the game.”
UVa’s nine hits included solo homers by Howard, Towns and Downes, whose sixth-inning shot made it 5-2 and landed well beyond the left-field wall, on the awning of the Tobacco Road sports bar.
The back-to-back homers in the fourth made “a huge difference from a confidence standpoint,” O’Connor said. “We’ve been hitting the ball so well over the last two weeks, since coming out of exam break. It’s been pretty incredible, how we did against Duke and then in the middle of the week against VCU and then North Carolina. The entire lineup was very locked-in, and I feel like we got back to that a little bit today, and hopefully that was something that can continue.”
Like Howard, Towns had two hits. He also distinguished himself in the field, where he was an 11th-hour replacement for fifth-year senior Jared King at first base.
King, suffering from flu-like symptoms, was scratched from the lineup after batting practice Thursday morning. Towns has played third base most of this season and doesn’t practice regularly at first, but he was flawless with the glove Thursday, helping turn two of UVa’s three double plays.
With King unavailable and Towns at first, Howard shifted from shortstop to third, and freshman John LaPrise started at short.
“We just had to make some different moves,” O’Connor said. “But that’s what good teams do: They respond. We put guys in different positions. I can tell you I’m not completely comfortable in moving guys around that much. I haven’t done that in my career here, really, but today called for it, and they all did a nice job.”
At Lake Braddock High School in Northern Virginia, Towns said,”I played short, third and second — everywhere but first.”
As for practicing at first base, “I really don’t,” Towns said with a smile. “I did occasionally in the fall and a little earlier in the spring, but I haven’t been over there in a while.”
That wasn’t apparent Thursday. Towns’ teammates were equally proficient on defense, and Silverstein grew stronger as the game progressed.
“I was thinking that we needed to save our bullpen as best we could for the rest of the tournament, and I just wanted to go out and throw strikes,” he said.
Silverstein had never worked past the seventh inning in his college career before Thursday, but pitching coach Karl Kuhn sent him back out for the eighth and then the ninth.
He nearly became the first UVa pitcher to throw a complete game since Branden Kline on March 24, 2012, but O’Connor and Kuhn had decided that freshman right-hander Josh Sborz would take over if any Jackets reached base in the ninth. With two outs, Mott Hyde singled off Silverstein, and in came Sborz.
“Scott had done his job,” O’Connor said.
And that, as much as anything, was why Virginia improved to 1-1 in Durham. Against Virginia Tech, UVa’s starter, freshman left-hander Brandon Waddell, had lasted only four innings.
“This is no knock on Brandon Waddell at all,” O’Connor said. “He’s done some really great things. But look at the difference between today and yesterday. Scott gave up 10 hits, but he made the big clutch pitches with runners in scoring position. That’s the difference. At this time of year, when you’re facing good opponents, and you got good arms on the mound on both sides, that’s what separates whether you win or lose, really, if you play good consistent defense. Waddell unfortunately didn’t make those pitches, and Scott did.”