By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The UVa baseball team has played 32 games at Davenport Field this season, winning 29 of them.
Those, however, were regular-season contests. The stakes will be higher and the atmosphere different when Virginia takes the field Friday afternoon for the opening game of the NCAA tournament’s Charlottesville Regional.
And that, UVa coach Brian O’Connor knows, can be good and bad.
“I think it’s important that our players and our coaches don’t get caught up in the moment,” O’Connor said during the Cavaliers’ press conference Thursday at Davenport Field.
“It’s simple to sit here and say, `Well, it’s another ball game.’ It’s more than just another ball game tomorrow. But we need to have the same mentality that we’ve had all year, because it’s been pretty darn good. It’s gotten us to where we are right now.”
The Wahoos (44-13) are seeded No. 3 overall in the 64-team NCAA tournament. In the double-elimination Charlottesville Regional, UVa is seeded No. 1, Arkansas (38-23) is No. 2, Liberty (41-16) is No. 3, and Bucknell (30-19-1) is No. 4.
On Friday’s schedule are two games: Virginia vs. Patriot League champion Bucknell at 2 p.m., and Arkansas vs. Liberty at 7 p.m.
“We love playing at home,” UVa second baseman Branden Cogswell said Thursday. “There’s a comfort thing here. There’s no better place than playing at Davenport. We’re here every day. The fans are great. We’re happy that we get to play here, and we’re excited to go out tomorrow in front of the home crowd and play our game.”
A year ago, the Wahoos went 3-0 at the Charlottesville Regional to advance to a best-of-three NCAA super regional for the fourth time under O’Connor. Twice the `Hoos have reached the College World Series, in 2009 and ’11.
“When it gets to this time of the year, you’re going to face really good teams that play consistent baseball,” O’Connor said Thursday. “That’s what it takes to move on. That’s the kind of club we are, and that’s the kind of club everybody is from this point on.
“There’s no easy road for any team in this regional, or any regional. You gotta play good people, and that’s what you want. Our players come to the University of Virginia, our coaches come to the University of Virginia, to have the opportunities that we have in front of us. I’m sure those other schools feel the same way, that this is what it’s about, competition against really good people. That’s where you really find out what the young men that wear your uniform [are] made of.”
UVa played Bucknell twice last season, winning 12-4 and 9-1 in early March at Davenport Field. Back then, Artie Lewicki was still recovering from Tommy John surgery. Healthy again, the 6-3, 212-pound right-hander will start Friday against the Bison.
“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Lewicki told reporters Thursday. “There’s a calm excitement to it … I’m just going to go out and treat it just like any other game and hopefully pitch the same.”
O’Connor said he wanted to recognize what Lewicki has “done in this program for four years and what he’s done this year. I believe he’s pitching as good a baseball as anybody we have on our pitching staff, and I felt that him being the senior, he’s earned the right to get this regional hopefully started off on the right foot, and I’m very, very confident that he’ll go out there and do a great job and give us a quality start tomorrow.”
Lewicki, who missed nearly a month early this season with an oblique injury, is 5-1 with a 1.99 earned-run average. He recently replaced sophomore Josh Sborz in UVa’s weekend rotation and worked seven shutout innings May 16 in a win at Wake Forest.
In UVa’s first game at the ACC tournament, Lewicki gave up five hits and four runs in five innings May 22 against Maryland in Greensboro, N.C.
That game was played at hitter-friendly NewBridge Bank Park. The dimensions at the more-spacious Davenport Field — 332-370-404-370-332 — often work to the pitcher’s advantage.
“It’s nice to turn around and see the graveyards in the gap there,” Lewicki said. “It’s a good feeling, definitely. Pitching at home provides another sense of comfort. But I think at the same time those things are kind of irrelevant. You have to focus on your opponent and just do what you know how to do and pitch well.”
No player on Bucknell’s roster has NCAA tournament experience. The Cavaliers, by contrast, are in the NCAAs for the 11th straight season, and juniors abound in their lineup, among them Cogswell, outfielders Derek Fisher and Brandon Downes, first baseman Mike Papi, third baseman Kenny Towns and catcher Nate Irving.
“I think we’re prepared,” said Cogswell, who missed last year’s NCAA tourney with an injury. “We’re going to go out, we’re going to have fun, we’re going to play our game and do our best.”
O’Connor said: “We expect a great ball game right out of the gate, and we’ll move on from there.”