By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the University of Virginia baseball team, the 2014 season ended 1,186 miles from Davenport Field, in Omaha, Neb.
A new season begins Friday for the Cavaliers, whose objective in 2015 remains the same as it is every year: to conclude the campaign in Omaha, at the College World Series.
That’s a realistic goal for a team that finished last season as NCAA runner-up after losing to Vanderbilt in the deciding game of the best-of-three CWS championship series. The Wahoos are ranked as high as No. 2 nationally this preseason, in part because they return an exceptional group of pitchers led by junior left-hander Nathan Kirby, a first-team All-American in 2014.
“I’ve said it before that if you want something back from one year to the next, you want your starting pitching back, and we certainly have that,” said head coach Brian O’Connor, who heads into his 12th season at UVa with a 514-177-2 record and three trips to the College World Series (2009, ’11 and ’14).
“So to be running Nathan Kirby out in Game 1 and Connor Jones in Game 2 and Brandon Waddell in Game 3 and having [Josh] Sborz at the end, and some talent in the middle, you feel pretty good about what you’re running out there on the mound.”
Sophomore shortstop Daniel Pinero said: “It’s huge. Kirby speaks for himself. He’s an outstanding pitcher, and we’ve got Connor Jones, who I thought last year was an amazing pitcher and this year is going to be a starter. I can’t wait to see what he does. And Waddell, Waddell is just a baller.”
Virginia opens with a three-game series against East Carolina in Greenville, N.C. The teams are scheduled to meet at 3 p.m. Friday and then play a doubleheader Saturday, with the first game at noon. (The second game will start 45 minutes after the first one ends Saturday.)
The Pirates, who finished 33-26 last season, have a new head coach, Cliff Godwin. He’s an ECU graduate who’s been as an assistant at such schools as UNC Wilmington, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, LSU and Mississippi.
“Really good baseball man,” O’Connor said Tuesday at Davenport Field. “Knows the game. Heck of a motivator. Any time you get a new coach, a fresh start to a program that historically has had success, they’ll be ready under him. I can guarantee it. We’ll certainly have a fight on our hands this weekend.”
In 2014, the `Hoos opened the season in Wilmington, N.C., where they lost 8-3 to a Kentucky team that would go on to make the NCAA tournament. A comparable challenge awaits the Cavaliers at ECU, and that’s fine with O’Connor. The Pirates played a three-game series in Charlottesville last year.
“I think we’re to the point in our program that our guys come here to be challenged by the best, and certainly we get that in [the ACC],” O’Connor said.
With the out-of-conference schedule, O’Connor added, he decided several years ago to challenge his team “a little bit more, and we’ve done that in this agreement we entered into with East Carolina. I think it stems from our guys coming here wanting to be challenged by the best.”
The Pirates missed the NCAAs in 2013 and ’14, but they were regulars in the tournament for most of the previous decade. Clark-LeClair Stadium seats 5,000, and the Cavaliers aren’t likely to receive a warm welcome from ECU fans.
“It’ll be a challenging environment for our young kids to play in right at the beginning,” O’Connor said.
Those players, however, came to UVa “with the expectation that this is the way it was going to be,” O’Connor said. “I think that they’re talented and skilled enough to be able to handle it.”
A heralded recruiting classes enrolled at Virginia last summer, several of whose members are expected to play prominent roles this weekend, including first baseman Pavin Smith, second baseman Ernie Clement and outfielders Adam Haseley and Charlie Cody.
“I’m excited to see the impact that some of those first-year players can make,” O’Connor said. “They’re going to need to, because they’re going to be in the lineup Day One. They’re talented players, and I think that they’re going to make contributions right away and throughout the season.
“Both Pavin Smith and Adam Haseley played at a very high level of high school baseball and travel baseball. They’ve been in some pretty challenging situations. They’re not going to be perfect. They’re going to make their mistakes. But I think the skill level of them, and others, is pretty darn good, and hopefully they can handle it.”
Junior Robbie Coman is scheduled to start at catcher Friday, with sophomore Matt Thaiss backing him up. Coman and Thaiss also are options at first base, O’Connor said.
The starters are back on the left side of the infield — senior Kenny Towns (.278) and Pinero at short — but the outfield has a new look. Two of last year’s starters, Derek Fisher and Brandon Downes, are pursuing professional careers, and the other 2014 starter, junior Joe McCarthy, is recovering from Jan. 29 back surgery.
McCarthy batted .301 last season, with six home runs and 49 RBI, and led the ‘Hoos with 16 doubles and 11 stolen bases. He’s expected to be sidelined until late April.
“Coach told us it kind of gives other people more opportunities to step into their new roles, with Joe out of the lineup,” said Pinero, a brilliant fielder who hit .261 last season.
“When Joe comes back, our team will be even stronger, even better, because Joe’s a big key to our team. It’s a huge loss, but this kind of gives the freshmen a little bit of an opportunity to play now that he’s out.”
McCarthy, O’Connor said, is “one heck of a player. We all know that. He’s proven that in our uniform for a couple of years, and he’s got great leadership [skills]. Nobody’s more disappointed than Joe that he’s not going to be out there to help this team. We’ll just have to find a different way to have the same level of success.
“I know this: Nobody’s feeling sorry for us. We’re disappointed and feel sorry for Joe, but nobody else out there is. We just gotta adapt and find ways to win baseball games. When Joe returns to our team, whenever that is, it’ll make us that much better and that much stronger.”
John La Prise, who played in the infield as a sophomore last season, when he hit .348, has been moved to the outfield and, if healthy, will start against ECU. But he’s been slowed by injuries in preseason and “hasn’t been able to be out there every day,” O’Connor said Tuesday, “so I just don’t know yet whether or not he’ll be ready to play.”
If La Prise is available, he’ll probably start in center field, with Haseley in right and Cody or senior Thomas Woodruff in left, O’Connor said. If La Prise can’t play, look for Haseley to start in center, Cody in left and Woodruff in right.
Whatever their lineup, Pinero said, the ‘Hoos should be formidable again this season.
“Now that our team is for the most part new, I don’t think we have a lot of pressure on us,” Pinero said. “I think we’re going to surprise some people with how the new players play. Yeah, we had a ton of juniors last year in the starting roles, and they were really confident, but I think these freshmen are going to do great, and I can’t wait to see what they do.”
UVa’s 2014 season ended June 25 with a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Vanderbilt.
“It feels like we just got done playing,” O’Connor said. “Time goes by so quickly. But I’m really excited for this team. Our guys have worked really, really hard the whole fall and this preseason, and we’re to the point right now that we just gotta get out and play.”
Coman said: “It’s indescribable … It’s going to be awesome. Can’t wait.”