By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — His baseball team won 50 games last season, but that’s not the only number Virginia coach Brian O’Connor will remember when he reflects on 2013.
In its best-of-three series with Mississippi State in an NCAA super regional at Davenport Field, UVa committed seven errors, an uncharacteristically sloppy performance for a program whose trademarks under O’Connor have been superior pitching and stellar defense.
The Cavaliers made four errors in Game 1, which the Bulldogs won 11-6, and three in Game 2, which MSU won 6-5 to advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
For the season, the Wahoos committed 75 errors in 62 games. That represented a dramatic dropoff defensively from 2011, when Virginia totaled only 54 errors in 68 games and reached the College World Series for the second time in program history.
And so defense was a priority for O’Connor as he headed into his 11th season at UVa.
“I thought that if we wanted to be a championship club that we would need to be better on our infield this year than we were last year,” O’Connor said Sunday afternoon at Davenport Field.
The early returns are encouraging. The top-ranked `Hoos (6-1) have made only two errors this season, and one was by a pitcher. In defeating East Carolina 3-2 on Friday, 4-0 on Saturday and 6-2 on Sunday, UVa did not commit an error.
Not since February 2007, at UCLA, had the Pirates been swept in a non-conference road series.
“All weekend, the defensive intensity we played with was pretty special,” O’Connor said.
Virtually all of the Cavaliers’ position players from 2013 are back this season, but O’Connor has revamped his infield. His starting shortstop is freshman Daniel Pinero. At second base is junior Branden Cogswell, who was the team’s No. 1 shortstop last year before suffering a season-ending hand injury in early May.
Jared King, UVa’s starting first baseman in 2013, exhausted his eligibility, and junior Mike Papi has the job this season. Nick Howard, who split time between third base and shortstop in 2013, is now the Cavaliers’ closer, as well as a designated hitter. Junior Kenny Towns started the first six games at third this season, with sophomore John La Prise making his first start there Sunday.
“So far, seven games in, it looks like our infield defense has improved,” O’Connor said. “I think if you want to be a championship ball club, obviously it starts on the mound, but tied into that is playing really good infield defense, and I like what I’ve seen these first seven games.”
La Prise played shortstop and second base for the Cavaliers in 2013 and appeared in 19 games, nine as a pinch-hitter. He starred in the Northwoods League last summer and continued his strong play in the fall, hitting .379 in the Orange & Blue World Series. He’s been dividing his time between second and third since practice began this year.
In the series finale against ECU (3-4), La Prise went 2 for 4. For the season, he’s 4 for 8.
“I like John as a player,” O’Connor said. “The challenging part that we have is that we have a lot of good players. It’s tough to get everybody in there, but I felt it was time to give John his first start. He’s been a good soldier in this program, and he’s done a nice job and worked really hard, and certainly he earned it today. He had two nice hits and handled a lot of balls at third base. He looked like he’d been playing there his whole life. I think it gives us a good option.”
O’Connor has no shortage of options throughout the lineup. Nine Cavaliers are batting .310 or better this season, including junior left-fielder Derek Fisher (.423).
Fisher, perhaps the best pro prospect in Virginia’s program, hit .288 as a freshman and .293 last year.
He’s matured at the plate. “I believe I’ve probably tried to do too much in a handful of situations when I’ve been here in the past,” Fisher said. “I think finally with all the failure I’ve started to actually learn about what to do in certain situations and understand that these are very good pitchers on the mound, and you’re not going to be able to drive a ball every single at-bat. You just gotta take what they give you. And with this kind of lineup, you gotta expect you’re going to get a pitch to hit, because if you walk somebody, you’re going to face a hitter that’s just as good the very next at-bat.”
Fisher bats fifth for Virginia. In the No. 6 slot Sunday was designated hitter Matt Thaiss, a freshman who went 3 for 4 with two doubles. For the season, Thaiss is hitting .353.
“I think Matt Thaiss has a chance to be a pretty special hitter,” O’Connor said. “He’s got a powerful left-handed swing, and he showed today that he can make some adjustments on what pitchers are trying to do to him.”
“I just felt like coming into the season he was going to have a chance to really boost our lineup,” O’Connor said. “When you’ve got a hitter of the quality of Derek Fisher, I think it’s important to have somebody that is potentially equal of quality behind him. Matt’s certainly showed that today, and I think he’s going to do some really great things for us this year.”
The `Hoos clinched the series win Saturday, but they remained fully engaged Sunday. Four Cavaliers had multi-hit games: Thaiss, Fisher, La Prise and sophomore right-fielder Joe McCarthy (2 for 4). Papi, Cogswell, Irving and junior center-fielder Brandon Downes added one hit apiece.
“Today we pretty much put the icing on the cake,” Fisher said, “and had some really, really, really good at-bats and just played good fundamental baseball.”
Sophomore left-hander Brandon Waddell, UVa’s Friday starter in 2013 and in the opener this year, took on a new role in the ECU series. His classmates Nathan Kirby and Josh Sborz started Friday and Saturday, respectively, and each earned a victory.
Waddell started Sunday and pitched 5.2 innings before giving way to fifth-year senior Whit Mayberry. Waddell scattered five hits, struck out two, walked one and allowed two runs.
“I felt like he needed a couple of extra days [of rest],” O’Connor said. “We made the move to do it. I thought that he handled it really well. When you’ve got a chance to go for a sweep against a really good club, it’s not an easy thing to do. I thought he gave us a great quality start through the first part of the game.”
Waddell said: “The approach stays the same. You’re still going out there pitching, regardless of the day, so really nothing really changed.”
Mayberry allowed only one hit in 2.1 innings. Kevin Doherty took over for UVa to start the ninth, but the sophomore left-hander walked ECU’s leadoff batter, and pitching coach Karl Kuhn turned to Howard.
Howard, a 6-4, 215-pound right-hander, struck out the first two batters he faced. He retired the third on a line drive. Kyle Crockett, an All-America closer for the `Hoos in 2013, is now in the Cleveland Indians’ organization, but Howard may turn out to be a more-than-capable replacement.
In the series opener, Howard retired the Pirates in order in the ninth to earn his first career save.
“Nick’s unbelievable,” Waddell said. “He can close the door just like Kyle could. As you could tell this weekend, we feel very, very comfortable giving it to him.”
The crowd of 3,592 on Sunday afternoon was the largest ever for a February game at Davenport Field. The three games drew 10,245, a record for a February series at Davenport.
The weather, terrific all weekend, helped, O’Connor noted. Still, enthusiasm already was high among UVa fans, who have bought season tickets in record numbers.
“We feel like we’ve built a pretty good brand in this community, that Virginia baseball’s exciting, it’s fun to come out and watch, and certainly we couldn’t do it without those fans,” O’Connor said. “When you have a number of recruits in the stands, like we did this weekend, that are visiting us, it’s nice to see that you have this kind of fan following, especially in February.
“It’s great to see, and hopefully they just continue to get bigger and bigger.”
UVa’s nine-game homestand continues Tuesday, when VMI (4-2) visits Davenport Field for a 3 p.m. game. This will be the teams’ second meeting this month. The Cavaliers blanked the Keydets 12-0 on Feb. 15 at the Hughes Bros. Challenge in Wilmington, N.C.