June 13, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Baseball, UVa coach Brian O’Connor likes to say, is a game meant to be played every day, and that’s what teams do in the NCAA tournament’s regional and super regional rounds.
At the College World Series, however, the schedule isn’t nearly as compressed for the first week.
Virginia, for example, opens against Mississippi at 8 p.m. (Eastern) Sunday in Omaha, Neb., in a game ESPN2 will televise. Win or lose, the Cavaliers won’t play again until Tuesday. Should the Wahoos win Sunday and Tuesday, they would not play again until Friday night.
The schedule affects how the Cavaliers’ pitchers will be used at TD Ameritrade Park.
“It is much different from this point forward, really until you get to the championship series, where it’s three games in a row,” O’Connor said Wednesday at Davenport Field. “From this point, for the first few games, you at least have a day off in between your games. Certainly you can manage your pitching staff different. You can use relief pitchers in Game 1 and then bring them back in Game 2, because they have a day’s rest in between.
“What you see this time of year in Omaha is pitching staffs kind of shrink. And what I mean by that is, if you’ve been using nine or 10 guys throughout the season, you can win the national championship with five pitchers, if your starters are high-quality starters.”
The CWS format gives coaches the option of bringing “guys back in multiple games,” O’Connor said. “It’s really quite [possible] that you might not need a fourth starter, so you could potentially put your third or fourth starter in the bullpen the first two ball games to strengthen your bullpen. Those are things that we’ll be looking at: which one of our starters maybe makes the most sense to transition to the bullpen for the first two ball games.”
For most of the regular season, UVa’s top three starters were sophomores Nathan Kirby, Brandon Waddell and Josh Sborz. For Virginia’s series at Wake Forest, however, senior Artie Lewicki replaced Sborz in the weekend rotation.
In the NCAA regional at Davenport Field, the Cavaliers’ starters, in order, were Lewicki, Kirby and Waddell.
In the best-of-three super regional against Maryland, Virginia started Kirby in Game 1 and Waddell in Game 2. Lewicki relieved Waddell and pitched the final 3.1 innings that afternoon, and then Sborz turned in a dominating performance as the Game 3 starter.
WAITING IN THE WINGS: Freshman right-hander Connor Jones, one of UVa’s top relievers in the regular season, has pitched only once in the NCAA tournament, May 30 in a 10-1 win over Bucknell at Davenport Field.
Jones (4-1, 3.13 RBI) struggled at times late in the regular season and against Florida State in the ACC tournament.
“I would say he’s been in some tough situations,” O’Connor said. “The last two or three weeks of the regular season, he was put in some difficult spots that maybe he wasn’t put in as much during the year.
“The results weren’t as good, but I can tell you that I haven’t lost my confidence in Connor. The kid’s still throwing the ball 90 to 94 miles an hour, he’s got a good slider, he knows what he’s doing. I have a sneaking suspicion there will be some point in Omaha where Connor Jones will impact us winning a ball game.”
GROUP EFFORT: On O’Connor’s first team at UVa, in 2004, his top assistants were Kevin McMullan and Karl Kuhn. They’re still with him: McMullan as associate head coach, recruiting coordinator and hitting coach, and Kuhn as pitching coach.
In 11 seasons together, O’Connor, McMullan and Kuhn have led the `Hoos to 11 appearances in the NCAA tournament, two ACC championships and three trips to the College World Series.
“If you asked me what would be one thing that you would point to for the consistency of the success that we’ve had in our baseball program, I’d tell you it’s Kevin McMullan and Karl Kuhn,” O’Connor said. “Those guys are fantastic. They’re as good as it gets. Not only are they outstanding recruiters and hard workers, they’re phenomenal teachers of the game and at helping our players develop.
“We’ve been able to — I don’t want to say `keep them here,’ because we’re not holding anybody hostage, and this is a pretty special situation — but we’ve been able to retain them, because, No. 1, the University of Virginia has been very committed to them [financially and in other ways].
“Since we got here 11 years ago, this administration, as we have won and continued to win, they’ve stepped up their commitments [to] retaining the assistant coaches, making the facility better, making our travel budget better, our recruiting budget better, basically every phase. And they’ve lived up to their word that they gave me 11 years ago that they would do that if we produced a winner.”
McMullan and Kuhn have stayed at UVa, too, because “they have a lot of autonomy in their job,” O’Connor said. “I give them a lot of responsibility, and when you’re really good in your profession, you want responsibility. And so there’s a lot of ways that they feel like they are a head coach, and certainly the success that we’ve had [has been a factor]. They want to coach teams that go to Omaha. Every coach does. And they have that opportunity here. They have the opportunity to work with great talent.
“We’ll see [what happens], but they’ve been very, very loyal to me and this program.”
TWICE AS NICE: For three players on UVa’s roster — fifth-year senior pitcher Whit Mayberry and senior pitchers Austin Young and Lewicki — this is their second trip to the College World Series. They were also on the 2011 team that went 2-2 in Omaha.
“I remember a lot of things that stick out in my mind: the times I had with my friends there on the team,” Mayberry said Wednesday. “It was just an awesome experience getting to hang out with my 34 best friends in Omaha, where it’s everybody’s dream to go as a kid.
“Obviously it’s about baseball, but it’s a really fun experience too.”
Ultimately, though, the trip “is about playing baseball and what happens between the white lines,” Mayberry said. “That’s something, I think, that we need to keep in the back of our minds as we are enjoying this experience. It is a business trip, and we need to take care of our business while we’re there.”
KEYSTONE KIDS: UVa’s roster for the College World Series includes five players from Pennyslvania: John La Prise (Exton), Derek Fisher (Rexmont), Joe McCarthy (Scranton), David Rosenberger (Bethlehem) and Mike Papi (Tunkhannock).
“The state of Pennsylvania is very, very important to us, and has been in the history of our program,” O’Connor said.
“It’s an area that we will continue and have already through our recruiting process continued to go back to, because it’s certainly served us well. I just like the mentality of the players that we’ve gotten from up there.”
The 6-3, 215-pound McCarthy starred in football at Scranton High and also started on the school’s basketball team.
“I love two-sport kids,” O’Connor said. “I love three-sport players even more. Joe McCarthy was as successful a high school player that you can possibly be. What he learned on the football field, all the rushing yards he had, all the touchdowns he had, how competitive he was on the football field, correlates over to the baseball field. And it’s really, really important to me. It makes me like Joe McCarthy, or any other player, even more. The athleticism that it takes to play basketball, I think, serves young athletes well too.
“I’m a big believer in recruiting players that are multi-sport athletes. I think they’re more competitive, they’re tougher, than somebody that just specializes.”
NO SMALL FEAT: The NCAA tournament started last month with 64 teams, eight of which had been awarded national seeds. Of those eight, only No. 3 Virginia and No. 7 TCU made it to Omaha, which didn’t shock O’Connor.
“Winning college baseball games at the end of the year now has gotten a lot more difficult,” he said. “The old guard, the old traditional college baseball powers, they used to run college baseball and you’d see the same old teams in the World Series in Omaha, and that has really changed quite a bit over the last five years. So I think you’re seeing quite a bit more parity.”
NO END IN SIGHT: In last week’s Major League Baseball draft, eight players from UVa were chosen, and so O’Connor’s team figures to look much different in 2015. Still, don’t expect the Cavaliers to fall from the ranks of the nation’s elite programs.
O’Connor, smiling, told reporters Wednesday that “the recruiting class that is coming in next year is pretty darn special.”
Four of its members — Devon Fisher, Pavin Smith, Derek Casey and Tommy Doyle — were drafted last week. None was taken before the 20th round, but that “doesn’t mean they’re not good,” O’Connor said. Instead, it reflects the fact that the recruits made clear that signing them would be difficult.
“If you look at before the draft where they were all ranked, that’s what important,” O’Connor said. “But it’s a great class. It’s balanced between very high-level pitching and some really outstanding position players that can make an impact right away.”
The first Cavalier drafted last week was All-America closer Nick Howard, whom the Cincinnati Reds selected with the 19th overall pick. His focus since then, Howard said, has been on ending his college career on a high note.
“To be honest, I haven’t even really thought about [the draft] since it happened,” he said. The Reds are “just waiting for the season to end, and hopefully I’ll be talking to them after a national championship.”
Howard recorded the final four outs Monday night in UVa’s 11-2 victory over Maryland in the deciding game of the Charlottesville Super Regional, after which his teammates rushed the mound and buried him at the bottom of a dogpile.
“The longest 30 seconds of my life,” Howard said, smiling. “My arm was up here and my leg was over there.”