By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The longest game in the history of University of Virginia baseball lasted 18 innings. Matt Thaiss was the Cavaliers’ catcher for all 18.
Thaiss also scored the winning run Sunday, chugging home from second on a single by freshman Christian Lowry in the bottom of the 18th to lift Virginia to a 5-4 victory over Marist in Charleston, S.C.
The marathon — five hours and eight minutes in all — took a toll on the 6-0, 195-pound sophomore, who went 3 for 7 in the game. But Thaiss didn’t feel its full effect until afterward.
“During the game I got a little tired,” he recalled the next day at Davenport Field, “but I think around the 14th or 15th, I was like, `All right, I gotta stay up, keep my energy up, and as long as this goes, I gotta be ready to go.’
“But after the game, just sitting on the bus on the ride back [to Charlottesville], I felt it a little bit.”
Thaiss, who was used at designated hitter in four of the Wahoos’ first seven games this season, will spend most of his time at catcher until junior Robbie Coman returns to the lineup. Coman, UVa’s No. 1 catcher, suffered a knee injury Saturday and is expected to miss at least two weeks.
Because of the field conditions at Davenport, which has been hammered by bad weather, the `Hoos (7-0) will play this weekend in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Virginia, ranked as high as No. 1 nationally, is scheduled to meet Hartford at 1 p.m. Friday, Seton Hall at 3 p.m. Saturday, and Cornell at 11 a.m. Sunday.
It was not ideal for Thaiss to catch all 18 innings of UVa’s final game in Charleston, head coach Brian O’Connor acknowledged, but “he’s a big, strong kid. He’s young. He hasn’t caught much, and he’ll be fine … It’s the situation we’re in.”
Freshman Justin Novak, who has been starting at second base, will back up Thaiss while Coman is out.
“He caught for us in the fall, in scrimmages and things like that,” O’Connor said of the 5-9, 160-pound Novak. “He came to us actually as a high school catcher/infielder, so he’d do a fine job back there. After that there’s really not an option. We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed, and hopefully we’ll stay healthy moving forward.”
As a freshman last season, Thaiss was the No. 3 catcher, behind Nate Irving and Coman, on a team that reached the championship game of the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. He played in 26 games, with 16 starts as designated hitter, and batted .265.
“Honestly, I had no idea what to expect,” said Thaiss, a graduate of Jackson Memorial High School in Jackson, N.J. “I just came in here as a freshman and tried to compete, tried to prove myself, and it was a really deep team.
“I had a lot of fun, and I can’t express how much I learned from Nate and Robbie last year, coming in as a freshman and knowing, basically, nothing about the system. Robbie and Nate kind of took me under their wing and taught me everything they knew.”
Irving left after the season to pursue a professional career, and his departure moved Thaiss into the rotation at catcher. Before heading to Wisconsin to play in the Northwoods League, Thaiss met with his UVa coaches, who addressed flaws in his catching technique.
“We talked to him about what he needed to work on fundamentally from a catching standpoint to get better and to step into a bigger role this year,” O’Connor said. “And he did. He went away to the Northwoods League and he worked hard and he showed serious improvement this fall, and we knew that he was going to catch for us this spring. We just didn’t know how much yet.”
The coaches, Thaiss said, stressed the importance of his “being on time — setting up on time [behind the plate], in rhythm with the pitchers. I think that was one of the biggest things I had to work on.”
In 26 games with the Madison Mallards, Thaiss hit .286.
“It was a great program,” he said. “We played a lot of games and got a lot of at-bats, a lot of innings behind the plate. It was a lot of baseball in a short amount of time, and I think it really helped.”
O’Connor agreed. “He’s a much improved player. He’s got a lot more confidence than he had last year.”
Thaiss’ role has changed dramatically on a team that started six freshmen Sunday against Marist. Many of the Cavaliers’ 2014 standouts are now playing pro ball, so he’s considered a veteran. Never mind that he’s played in only 33 college games.
“It’s definitely interesting,” Thaiss said. “Coming in here as a freshman, you kind of just look up to everybody, and you don’t really know what to do. Everything moves so fast, you just gotta pick up on what other people are doing. Now this year it’s the exact opposite for me. The freshmen are looking at everybody else. If you’re not a freshman, they’re looking at you to see what you’re doing.”
Thaiss is third on the team with a .357 batting average, and he’s tied for the lead with six RBI. This is O’Connor’s 12th season at UVa, where he’s coached only one other catcher with Thaiss’ hitting prowess: John Hicks, who’s now in spring training with the Seattle Mariners.
“John Hicks could really swing the bat,” O’Connor said, “and he kind of was in a similar situation [to Thaiss]. John Hicks really didn’t catch his freshman year, but we used his bat some in the lineup, sprinkled him in at first base and things like that. He caught more his sophomore year and then was the everyday catcher as a junior. But he needed to be in our lineup regardless, because of his bat.”
Thaiss, who bats left-handed, has always loved hitting. “Pitching never worked out for me,” he said with a laugh, “so I had to focus on something.”
In 2013, the Boston Red Sox selected Thaiss in the 32nd round of the Major League Baseball draft. He never seriously considered skipping college.
“I knew that I wanted to come here,” Thaiss said. “I wasn’t really the kind of caliber player [to turn pro out of high school], and when you look at everything about this place, you can never turn something like this down. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made, to come here.”
Born and raised in Jersey, Thaiss also wrestled and played football as a boy. By the time he reached high school, though, his focus was baseball. The source of his athletic ability?
“One hundred percent my mother,” Thaiss said. “She pitched softball in high school. She’s the one who actually taught me to play baseball at a young age.”
He smiled. “My dad’s not going to be happy about that, but it’s OK.”
Thaiss, who plans to major in politics, with a focus in government, has embraced the UVa experience, on and off the field.
“Everyone’s so nice here,” Thaiss said. “It’s a big city here in Charlottesville, but it’s like one small community. Everything’s so tightly knit. You walk into a place, a diner or a restaurant or anything, and everyone’s so nice.”
And then there’s Davenport Field, where the `Hoos went 34-4 last season. Thaiss and his teammates are eager for the weather to improve, so they can play at home in front of their loyal fans.
“The atmosphere here, you saw it last year with the [NCAA] super regional and regional, it was out of control,” Thaiss said. “It was awesome. The stadium was packed, and it’s like that for every ACC weekend. The support for this program is tremendous. I know there’s not many places like it out there. I think everyone in the clubhouse really realizes how special it is to play here.”