By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When UVa’s baseball schedule for 2015 was released in late September, Kenny Towns never would have believed it would be mid-March before the team played a home game at Davenport Field.
But Mother Nature got her way, as she usually does. And so Virginia (13-1 overall, 2-1 ACC) has played “home” games in Charleston, S.C., in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and, most recently, in Cary, N.C.
That many other college teams have experienced similar weather-related problems has made the situation easier for the Cavaliers to accept.
“Obviously, it stinks not being able to play at home when you should be,” Towns said, “but everyone else is doing the same, so no one feels bad for you. You just gotta go out there and play the game like you would if you were at home.”
The Wahoos already have taken almost a season’s worth of long bus trips. But a seemingly interminable wait could end Wednesday for a team ranked third nationally by Baseball America.
Weather permitting, the `Hoos will host Old Dominion (5-5) at 4 p.m. at Davenport Field in what would be their first game in Charlottesville this season. (UVa originally was scheduled to play its home opener Feb. 17, against VCU.)
After Wednesday, most of the Cavaliers will be able to look forward to at least one more home opener at Davenport Field. For Towns and Thomas Woodruff, the only seniors on UVa’s roster, this is it.
Woodruff, who joined the program as a walk-on in 2011, has worked his way into the outfield rotation this season. Towns, a three-year starter at third base, is hitting .309, with 10 RBI, this season. Only sophomore Matt Thaiss, with 11, has more RBI among the Cavaliers.
“I’m feeling good,” Towns said. “I feel like the approach is there and the swing’s there, but just to get some at-bats [at Davenport Field] would be nice.”
On a team dominated by underclassmen — Virginia started five freshmen Sunday against Pittsburgh in Cary — the 22-year-old Towns finds himself in a new role this season.
“It’s kind of different,” he said, “just because there’s not as many familiar faces from [previous seasons]. But overall, just being an older guy, you’ve got to take a little leadership role, and with so many freshmen, we’ve got to make sure we’re showing them the ropes and make sure they’re going about their business.
“But it really doesn’t feel too different from a baseball perspective. I’m just going out there and playing.”
That’s exactly the approach head coach Brian O’Connor wants from Towns, who also has started a half-dozen games at first base during his UVa career.
“We don’t need him to do any more than he’s done from a performance standpoint,” O’Connor said. “We just need him to be consistent and then be a good leader. I think sometimes somebody gets in his situation, and knowing that we have fix or six freshmen in the lineup, they feel like they have to do more from the standpoint of performance, and that’s dangerous for somebody to feel that way.
“We just need him to provide good leadership and show the players the way, and how to handle the ups and downs in a game and through a college season. Because he’s got the most experience out of anybody we have.”
Towns said: “There’s no need to go out there and try to do too much, just because I’m older. Our offense and our team has a lot of talent, so I don’t think there’s any individual pressure on me to do more.”
This is one of the least experienced teams O’Connor has had in his 12 seasons at Virginia, but expectations remain high in one of the nation’s elite programs. The `Hoos have advanced to the College World Series in three of the past six seasons.
The freshmen, Towns said, “play like veterans. They’re not anxious or anything. They’re not nervous, and I think just having them come right in and perform at a high level, it gives us a chance to be a really good ball club.”
Towns hasn’t forgotten his first year in Charlottesville. Not long after graduating from Lake Braddock High in Fairfax County, he arrived at UVa in the summer of 2011. His new coaches handed him an outfielder’s glove, a pitcher’s glove and an infielder’s glove. Later he practiced behind the plate with a catcher’s mitt, too.
“I’ve tried `em all,” said Towns, who played second base, shortstop and third base and pitched at Lake Braddock.
As a freshman in 2012, Towns started nine games at designated hitter and played in 28 overall, batting .294.
That Towns would have a greater impact in 2013 became clear on opening day, when he belted two grand slams in a 14-4 rout of East Carolina in Greenville, N.C. For the year, he batted .290, tied for second on the team with seven home runs, and ended the season on an 11-game hitting streak.
In 2014, he started slowly at the plate but finished with a flourish. Towns, who hit .278 for the season, batted .340 in the NCAA tournament and had the second-most hits and third-most RBI of any player in the tourney.
At the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., where Virginia lost to Vanderbilt in the championship game, Towns hit .308.
“He’s had a nice career here,” O’Connor said. “He’s been a real steady rock for us. We lose the majority of our players after three years. So when you have somebody that’s made the impact that he has, and now he’s here in his fourth year, it feels like he’s been around here for a long time.”
At this time last season, there was no guarantee Towns would return for his senior year. But in June, when six of his classmates were chosen in the Major League draft — Nick Howard, Derek Fisher, Mike Papi, Brandon Downes, Branden Cogswell and Nate Irving — Towns wasn’t picked.
“I wasn’t too surprised,” Towns said. “I don’t think I did very well last year in the early parts of the season, so it wasn’t like I was like, `Oh, wow, what happened?’ And I didn’t think [a pro offer] was going to be enough to where I’d want to leave. So I wasn’t really worried about it.”
Towns, who lives with redshirt freshman pitcher Jack Roberts, is on track to graduate in May with a bachelor’s in history.
“That will be real nice,” he said, “just knowing that I can get it done and not having to worry about [later]. If I do happen to get drafted and play at the next level, it won’t be something I have to think about.”
He smiled. “I guess I’ll have more of the offseason off.”