Oct. 29, 2013

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — When UVa baseball coach Brian O’Connor looks at his roster, he sees options. Lots of options. And that bodes well for a team that opens its 11th season under O’Connor on Feb. 14 against Kentucky at the Hughes Bros. Challenge in Wilmington, N.C.

The Cavaliers have experienced many more highs than lows during O’Connor’s tenure, posting a 461-161-2 record and advancing 10 times to the NCAA tournament. Twice UVa has played in the College World Series. Even by Virginia’s standards, though, the 2014 season looks exceptionally promising.

From a team that finished 50-12 after advancing to an NCAA super regional, the Wahoos returned eight position players who started at least 47 games apiece. Moreover, the `Hoos are likely to be as deep as they are talented in 2014.

Their outfielders include sophomores Joe McCarthy and Robert Bennie and juniors Derek Fisher, Mike Papi and Brandon Downes. Their infielders include juniors Nick Howard, Branden Cogswell, Kenny Towns and Papi; sophomores John La Prise and McCarthy; and freshmen Daniel Pinero and Tony Butler.

At catcher, junior Nate Irving returns as the starter, but sophomore Robbie Coman and freshman Matt Thaiss are also viable options.

Virginia’s pitchers include Howard, seniors Whit Mayberry, Austin Young and Artie Lewicki, sophomores Nathan Kirby, Josh Sborz, David Rosenberger and Brandon Waddell, and freshmen Connor Jones and Jack Roberts.

“Certainly it gives us some of the better depth that we’ve ever had here,” O’Connor said, “and quite frankly possibly the best from a position-player standpoint, as far as different options and playing players at different spots and using different lineups.

“We’ve been hurt sometimes in the past when we’ve felt like we’ve had a pretty good club, and all of the sudden you have a couple injuries. That’s where depth comes into play. Now you feel like if somebody’s out for an extended period of time, you’re hopefully not going to miss a beat.”

UVa concluded fall ball Oct. 20 at Davenport Field with the seventh and deciding game of the annual Orange & Blue World Series. Thaiss’ two-run single in the bottom of the ninth inning lifted the Blue team a 3-2 victory that assured the winners of more than bragging rights over their Orange counterparts.

In December, before the start of final exams, O’Connor will have his players over to his house for a holiday dinner. The Orange & Blue World Series result determines who eats what.

“The winners get these big fat steaks, and the losers get hot dogs,” O’Connor said.

Towns and McCarthy, last season’s ACC freshman of the year, were held out of the Orange & Blue games because of minor back injuries. Also, the coaching staff chose to have Waddell, a 6-3 left-hander who was UVa’s Friday starter last season, focus on his strength and conditioning this fall.

Otherwise, though, the `Hoos had almost a full complement of players available for the seven-game series, and many standouts emerged.

“I think we grew a lot as a group, the older guys and the younger guys,” Irving said after Game 7. “We had our ups and downs, we had our good days and our bad days, but that’s just what makes the whole experience, and that’s what gets you to that next level, being able to experience both sides of it.”

For the Blue team, Thaiss hit .444, and La Prise and Howard each hit .379. For the Orange, Irving hit .391, Ragsdale .333, Cogswell .323, Bennie .321 and Coman .308.

“I like what we did this fall,” O’Connor said, “because obviously the series was competitive, but I also think we’ve got a nice blend of some juniors and seniors that have a lot of experience in our uniform. But then we’ve got this sophomore class that absolutely has talent, and now they’ve gained a year of experience, and now it’s their time to really take the next step. And I think you’ve got guys in that rookie class that can certainly supplement what we need to do this year.”

Those freshmen include the 6-0, 195-pound Thaiss, a New Jersey product whom the Boston Red Sox selected in the 32nd round of the MLB draft in June.

“I think he’s in the category of some of those other freshman position players that have had the ability to come in and contribute right away,” O’Connor said. “Joe McCarthy last year was a great example. I think Matt has a pretty advanced approach at the plate, like Joe did last year. He certainly showed this fall that he’s somebody that can absolutely help us with the bat right away, early in his career.”

Irving started 56 games at catcher last season. O’Connor should have the luxury of resting Irving periodically in 2014.

“Most years we’ve had a front-line catcher, and he’s done 90 to 95 percent of the catching,” O’Connor said. “We’re in a situation this year where in the fall there were three guys that showed that they are ready to catch at this level. Irving, obviously, and I think Robbie Coman is much improved and has some experience now and certainly can do the job.

Matt Thaiss has done some good things but still has to learn, and there’s a little ways to go still for him. But we’re in a situation now where we do have some different options to play some different combinations. We have options to pinch-hit and pinch-run for guys at different points in the ball game. You feel like you can put another catcher in and not miss a beat.”

Irving said: “I’m ready to go whenever my number’s called. If it means catching 56 games, then I’ll definitely be ready for it. But we do have a lot of depth. Robbie’s had a great fall, and so has Matt. He’s come a long way behind the plate. He can certainly swing it a little bit. I’m excited for our pitching staff to have three guys who really can handle it and who can do a great job leading our pitching staff.”

From the 2013 team, that staff lost weekend starter Scott Silverstein (10-2, 3.15 ERA) and All-America closer Kyle Crockett (4-1, 1.70). Candidates to replace Crockett in that role include Young, Sborz and Mayberry, all of whom have extensive experience as relievers.

“I think it might be a situation at the start of the season that we just look at different options of closing the game,” O’Connor said. “We’ve been in the situation the last couple of years where we haven’t had a closer returning, but somebody has emerged.”

It was Justin Thompson in 2012 and then Crockett last season. “Both of those guys did a tremendous job, and I’m sure as we work into the preseason and stuff, there will be one or two guys that emerge,” O’Connor said.

“I think our depth on the mound is good. I think we have a number of guys that can start games for us. I just think it’ll be really important who settles in there at the end of the game.”

Lewicki, a weekend starter for the `Hoos in 2012, had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow that summer. He appeared in two games last season before doctors shut him down again.

Structurally, O’Connor said, the elbow is fine, and Lewicki continued his throwing program this fall.

“He’s in a phase right now, under Dr. [James] Andrews’ order, to not throw until the beginning of December, and then he’ll crank back up,” O’Connor said. “We really won’t know until we get towards the beginning part of the season, where he’s at and how much he’s really going to contribute.”

The coaching staff chose to shut Waddell down this fall, O’Connor said, “to make sure that he’s ready to go for the season. He’s gotten a lot stronger. He’s put on some good weight. He’s a little bit more physical, and hopefully that impacts his endurance later in ballgames and later in the season.

“Sometimes you gotta make a decision on what you feel is best for the individual and for our team, and sometimes that’s for them not to throw and to concentrate on their strength training. Hopefully you reap the benefits of that.”

Howard went 6-4 as a pitcher last season, with a 3.38 ERA. When he wasn’t on the mound, Howard played third base and then, after Cogswell suffered a season-ending injury, shortstop. Towns filled in for Howard at third while Cogswell was out.

Where Howard, Towns and Cogswell will play in the field in 2014 is still to be determined. Virginia must replace two starters: second baseman Reed Gragnani and first baseman Jared King. Pinero could end up starting at shortstop, with Cogswell moving to second base. Possibilities at first include Papi, Howard, Towns and McCarthy.

“We have some good options,” O’Connor said. “We’ve got versatility. We have a number of athletic infielders that can really play all three positions.”

Pinero, who’s listed at 6-5, 200 pounds, is from Toronto. He didn’t hit well in the Orange & Blue World Series — his average was .160 — but is a gifted fielder.

“He’s talented,” O’Connor said. “He had some lapses throughout this fall. You’re just not used to the everyday grind of it and the intensity you have to have every day, but he’ll learn that. I think he’s showing that he’s got the skill. It’s a matter of how consistent he can be.”

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