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March 12, 2014

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — From a baseball team that won 50 games in 2013, UVa returned eight players who hit .280 or better, including five with averages of at least .316. Head coach Brian O’Connor had concerns heading into this season, but the Cavaliers’ offense wasn’t high on the list.

“It’s going to be a fun group to watch,” O’Connor told reporters last month as the season-opener approached.

For much of this young season, however, Virginia has had to rely on pitching and defense to win. UVa won its first ACC series last weekend at Duke, but did not score more than three runs in any of the three games. And so the Wahoos’ performance at the plate Tuesday was a welcome sight at Davenport Field.

“I’m glad we won two out of three [at Duke], and that’s good that we can win a close ballgame, but you certainly enjoy these too,” O’Connor said after third-ranked Virginia opened a six-game homestand by battering JMU 13-2 on a summer-like afternoon.

UVa (12-3) opens the home portion of its ACC schedule Friday against Boston College.

“If you’re not productive offensively, it gets frustrating,” O’Connor said. “Certainly we’re not going to throw up 13 runs every night, but I felt on a more consistent basis tonight our guys were doing the things fundamentally from an offensive standpoint like we want to do. And that’s the key, just trying to develop that consistency and carry it over.”

First baseman Mike Papi and catcher Nate Irving have hit well all season, and they stayed hot against JMU (7-9). Papi went 2 for 4, with two home runs, and Nate Irving was 2 for 2.

Their teammates followed their lead. Junior shortstop Branden Cogswell and freshman shortstop Daniel Pinero each went 3 for 4, and junior third baseman Kenny Towns was 2 for 3. The `Hoos totaled 16 hits off five JMU pitchers.

“Our lineup is a strong lineup, and eventually things are going to come around,” said Cogswell, who hit .346 last year before suffering a season-ending injury.

Virginia again played stellar defense, committing zero errors to JMU’s three, and that must remain a constant, Papi said. “But having a day like this really boosts the morale, and hits are definitely contagious,” he said. “Once a bunch of guys are hitting, everyone else wants to jump in.”

O’Connor said: “When you’re really swinging the bats well, it’s contagious, and there’s more of a positive feeling, and it allows your pitchers to go out there and attack on the mound and throw strikes and be aggressive, and just creates a looser environment.”

Papi’s two-out blast over the right-field fence put UVa ahead 1-0 in the first inning. In the third, with Cogswell on second base, Papi connected again. This homer — his team-leading fifth of the season — cleared not only the fence but the bleachers in right.

By the time the inning ended, the Cavaliers led 9-1.

“Coach always tells us to try to set the tone early and get it going,” Papi said, “and if someone can set the tone early, everyone can get on that wagon and keep it going.”

Irving leads the team with a .367 batting average, and Papi is second at .358. Junior left-fielder Derek Fisher, who’s hitting .333, missed the JMU game with a wrist injury.

“Obviously the show tonight was Mike Papi having two home runs,” O’Connor said, “but Mike’s been doing it all year. It’s important for those other guys to really start showing some consistency.”

Those players include Towns, who raised his batting average from .094 to .143, and Cogswell, who went from .216 to .255. Towns hit .290 last season.

“For us to have a really good offensive ballclub, you need a lot of guys throughout the lineup being productive,” O’Connor said, “and certainly getting those two guys, Cogswell and Towns, going tonight [was encouraging].”

Another positive for UVa was the pitching of freshman right-hander Connor Jones. In the first start of his college career, Jones needed only 46 pitches to complete four innings. He scattered three hits, struck out two, walked none and allowed one run.

“He did fantastic,” Papi said. “He came up there and went right after hitters, got them on their heels. He seems very composed on the mound. Nothing seems to faze him.”

Jones, a heralded recruit from Chesapeake’s Great Bridge High, has been a key member of UVa’s bullpen, and he’ll be used in relief against BC this weekend. But his role may change as the season progresses.

“Certainly we have the option moving forward if we’d like to start him,” O’Connor said, “potentially on the weekend [if the coaches want to] shuffle some things around. That’s why I wanted to get him out there and get a good start with him tonight.”

Jones earned his first win as a Cavalier. In seven appearances this season, he’s posted a 1.56 earned-run average, with 14 strikeouts (and only two walks) in 17.1 innings.

“I’ll be honest, I think the bullpen really, really helped me,” Jones said Tuesday night. “I was a little concerned how I would adjust to throwing more frequently and everything, but I think it’s helped so much in the long run, and I’m really happy. I kind of like it now.

“It’s cool seeing it from both ends. It’s not really a huge difference. You’re out there still trying to get your team momentum and pitch well.”

Jones was going to be limited to 50 pitches Tuesday night, so pitching coach Karl Kuhn went to his bullpen after the fourth inning: first to sophomore left-hander Kevin Doherty, then to freshman right-hander Alec Bettinger, then to crowd favorite Brett Lisle, a 6-9 redshirt sophomore left-hander, and finally to senior right-hander Austin Young.

“Hitting’s going to come and go,” O’Connor said. “You’re going to have your great days, and you’re going to have to win some games with pitching and defense. I was just happy to see some of those guys coming out of the bullpen and pitch so well for us.”

Pitchers Artie Lewicki and Jack Roberts remain sidelined with injuries, so it was important for the Cavaliers “to develop some more guys out of the bullpen and start to create some more depth,” O’Connor said.

Virginia is scheduled to meet Boston College at 5 p.m. Friday, at 1 p.m. Saturday and at 1 p.m. Sunday. The Eagles, 6-9 overall, are 0-3 in conference play. Miami swept BC last weekend in Coral Gables, Fla.

“It’s going to be nice to be back at home, especially [in] the ACC,” Cogswell said. “Anytime we get to play at Davenport, we’ll take it.”

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