By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In its 22nd game last season, the UVa baseball team improved to 18-4 with an 8-3 win over ACC rival Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.
Through 22 games in 2013, the Cavaliers were 20-2.
Virginia has become accustomed to such success during the tenure of head coach Brian O’Connor. This is O’Connor’s 12th season at UVa, and his record is 528-185-2, with 11 trips to the NCAA tournament and three appearances in the College World Series.
All of which makes the Wahoos’ slow start this season so confounding to everyone associated with the program.
“Quite frankly, we’re getting it from all angles right now,” O’Connor said Tuesday night at Davenport Field.
After losing 1-0 on Tuesday to Georgetown, UVa is 14-8. The `Hoos are 3-6 in ACC play.
“For 11 years, we’ve had a lot of success,” O’Connor said. “We’ve won at a pretty high rate. We’re being tested, and for it to get better, more consistently, we have to handle it the right way.”
Virginia, No. 20 in the latest Baseball America rankings, has lost three consecutive games and seven of its past nine. On Saturday, UVa went into the ninth inning ahead 10-9, only to give up two home runs and lose to then-No. 11 Florida State at Davenport Field. A day later, the Seminoles pummeled the Cavaliers 13-1.
UVa’s offensive funk continued Tuesday. Georgetown starter Simon Mathews retired all 15 batters he faced before giving way to Will Brown. The `Hoos managed two hits against the Hoyas (9-10): singles by juniors Kevin Doherty and Robbie Coman in the sixth and eighth, respectively. Only once did the Cavaliers have a runner in scoring position, in the eighth.
“We had one shot,” O’Connor said, “and couldn’t deliver that hit.”
The cornerstones of O’Connor’s program have always been pitching and defense. In 69 games last year, the `Hoos committed 51 errors. They have 28 already this season.
The pitching staff hasn’t been as sharp as expected, either. In three games against FSU, Virginia gave up 29 runs — 27 earned — and walked 34 batters.
Against Georgetown, starter Alec Bettinger allowed a fourth-inning home run to A.C. Carter, but the sophomore right-hander pitched well overall, striking out six and walking two. Doherty, a left-hander who took over in the sixth, was even more effective, allowing only one hit and striking out five in four innings.
“I think it was a good step for our pitching staff today,” Bettinger said. “That’s a positive we can take out of this.”
O’Connor revamped his starting lineup Tuesday, in part to lighten sophomore Matt Thaiss’ burden. Thaiss came into the season as the Cavaliers’ No. 2 catcher, but his role changed when Coman suffered a knee injury last month.
Against Georgetown, freshman Justin Novak made his first start at catcher. Thaiss began the game at designated hitter and Coman at first base, his first start at a position other than DH since returning from his injury.
Coman isn’t close to be being cleared to catch again, O’Connor said, and that’s not the only challenge facing the Cavaliers. From a team that went 53-16 and advanced to the College World Series final, UVa returned five position players who started at least 28 games each last season: Coman, Kenny Towns, Daniel Pinero, Joe McCarthy and John La Prise.
Of those five, only Towns and Pinero have been available for every game this season. McCarthy, who hit .301 last season, had back surgery before the season and isn’t expected back until late next month. Coman missed eight games with his knee injury, and a hip problem has limited La Prise to four games.
La Prise, who hit .348 last season, hasn’t played since March 1.
“We’re in the process of making a decision in the next week on what his future status is for the rest of the season,” O’Connor said Tuesday.
The Cavaliers won their first 10 games this season, but they were far from flawless during that stretch. The team’s recent struggles are providing more “teaching moments for those young players,” O’Connor said.
“You’d like to be able to provide teaching moments when you win the game, and certainly the first three weeks of the season there were a lot of teaching moments, even with winning the ball games. It’s disappointing, but we have to handle it like men. We’ve got to deal with it and figure out what we need to continue to work on, to get on other side of the column more often.”
It’s important for the players to stay positive, Doherty said. “It’s only March. We got a long season ahead of us, and if we keep our heads up and keep having good at-bats, doing the job on the mound and keep plugging away and putting work in daily, we’ll have good results at the end of the season.”
Still, Bettinger acknowledged, the slump has “been tough, especially for the older guys, because our team was so good last year that any little mistake we have now, it just seems like it’s magnified, because we were just so good last year. We just can’t take it to heart, I guess. We just gotta move on and play through it.”
A stretch of five straight road games begins Wednesday for UVa, which meets Liberty (14-9) at 3 p.m. in Lynchburg. Then comes a three-game series at Notre Dame (15-7, 3-6), followed by a Tuesday night date with VCU (12-10) at The Diamond in Richmond.
“We gotta just hang in there,” O’Connor said. “We have to continue to play the game the right way and play hard, and if you do that, I’m a firm believer that things go your way.”
That’s what happened in 2012. After getting swept by Florida State in a three-game series in Tallahassee, Virginia was 11-8-1 overall and 2-4 in ACC play that season. But the Cavaliers won 12 of their next 14 games and finished the regular season with an 18-12 conference record.
“We were able to click and put it together,” O’Connor recalled. “So there’s some experiences that we can draw from.”
After the game ended Tuesday night, O’Connor spoke at length to his players in the outfield before sending them to the locker room. His message?
“Just keep plugging,” Doherty said. “Keep your head down. Keep working. This is a challenge, and if we keep working through it, we’ll look back on it and be glad we went through it as a team.”