April 23, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — He’s had to change his lineup much more than he’d prefer, due to circumstances beyond his control. For UVa baseball coach Brian O’Connor and his team, though, the goals remain the same: an ACC championship, another NCAA tournament appearance and, ultimately, a return trip to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.

If the Cavaliers had a full complement of players, of course, their chances of reaching those objectives would be better. Still, the team’s resolve was clear Wednesday night at Davenport Field, where the Wahoos capped a homestand in which they went 5-1.

The `Hoos (26-15) have faced more than their share of adversity this season, the latest round coming this week, and “you’re not quite sure how your team is going to respond with all that bad news,” O’Connor said after his team’s 5-2 win over Liberty. “They responded tonight like winners, and it was great to see.”

With Daniel Pinero out after taking a fastball to the chin Tuesday, freshman Justin Novak made his first start at shortstop. With Jack Gerstenmaier resting his surgically repaired hamstring, senior Thomas Woodruff made his second start at second base.

“I don’t think we’ve played that combination all year,” O’Connor said of the Novak-Woodruff middle infield.

On the mound, freshman left-hander Adam Haseley made his first start as a Cavalier. In the past week, Virginia has lost two of its top pitchers, junior left-hander Nathan Kirby, an All-American in 2014, and freshman right-hander Derek Casey, and whether either will throw again this season is uncertain.

Moreover, John La Prise, a returning starter from the team that was NCAA runner-up last year, is out for the season with a bad hip, and freshman Ernie Clement, who has started 35 games, is sidelined with a hamstring injury.

“The list was long of players that have been available at some point this year that were not available tonight,” said O’Connor, who started five freshmen against the Flames (25-16).

He shrugged. “It is what it is,” O’Connor said, “and that’s why guys step up.”

Against Liberty, those guys included senior third baseman Kenny Towns. In the third inning Wednesday night, Towns crushed a three-run homer over the left-field wall, a shot that traveled at least 380 feet and put Virginia up 4-0.

“The wind played a little bit of a factor in tonight’s game, but not on that swing,” O’Connor said. “I think he got all of it, and, boy, did we need it. That’s what a guy like him needs to do. Not all the time, but those are the moments you step up, and you give your team a chance to win the ballgame.”

Another veteran, junior catcher Robbie Coman, went 2 for 4 on Wednesday night. Coman, who missed nine games with a knee injury early in the season, is 11 for 20 in his past five games.

Haseley distinguished himself Wednesday night, too. In only his fourth pitching appearance of the season, he scattered four hits in four scoreless innings, walking none and striking out four.

“The way he attacked the zone just kind of set the tone for us,” Towns said.

Haseley, who’s batting .278, started Virginia’s first 40 games in the outfield, and he went 1 for 4 at the plate Wednesday night. His versatility was part of what made the 6-1, 195-pound Haseley, who’s from Windermere, Fla., so attractive to the Cavaliers’ coaching staff.

“He was recruited as a dual player,” O’Connor said. “He just hasn’t pitched much for us. Because of all the injuries we’ve had for our position players, we haven’t wanted to use him on the mound. That whole situation has kind of flipped. And so now we’ll see him a lot more on the mound, and he’s got a fresh arm, so there’s a positive to it.”

His expanded role means “a little more work, I guess, but it’s something I enjoy,” Haseley said. “I enjoy having that challenge of doing both. I think I’ve been blessed with that ability to do both, so I think it’s important that I use it.”

Another freshman, right-hander Tommy Doyle, took over in the fifth and pitched two solid innings before giving way to sophomore right-hander Alec Bettinger. Closer Josh Sborz, a junior right-hander, retired the Flames in order in the ninth to earn his 12th save.

Virginia pitchers issued only one walk on a blustery night at Davenport.

“We threw strikes tonight,” O’Connor said. “When we’ve thrown strikes over the last week, we’ve won ballgames. When we haven’t, we’ve lost. We need to do that, and that’s probably the most important thing we need to do.”

With a 9-12 record in conference play, UVa remains in contention for a spot in the 10-team ACC tournament. Virginia is on the road this weekend for a three-game series with NC State (21-17, 9-11), starting Friday at 6:30 p.m.

The Cavaliers pounded Longwood 14-6 on Tuesday night, and they’ll head to Raleigh, N.C., on a two-game winning streak.

“I think it just gives us momentum going to the weekend. We’re a little more comfortable with everything,” Towns said. `I think we can just use it as a confidence boost for us, because we’re playing good baseball.”

Pinero, a sophomore whose streak of 82 consecutive starts at shortstop ended Wednesday, is expected to be available against NC State, O’Connor said. The Cavaliers’ pitching rotation for the series is yet to be determined.

After learning that Kirby would miss six to eight weeks with a strain of his left latissimus dorsi muscle, O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn had planned to start Casey in one of the games in Raleigh. But Casey, who started Tuesday night against Longwood, had to leave that game with two outs in the third inning because of an injury.

The medical staff examined Casey on Wednesday, O’Connor said. “They’ll be doing some tests moving forward, and those have not been scheduled yet.”

Sophomore right-hander Connor Jones (4-2, 3.49 earned-run average) is expected to start on Friday and junior left-hander Brandon Waddell (2-4, 5.18) on Saturday.

“We’ll see what we do about Sunday,” O’Connor said. “It might be a by-committee situation until we get through this final-exam break, and then we kind of reshuffle and assess what we’re going to do moving forward.”

Sborz said: “I honestly think we can keep winning with the pitching we have. We still have talented guys.”

If the Cavaliers’ offense can continue its recent surge, the pitching staff’s margin for error will be greater.

“I think we have a good chance to do some damage offensively,” Towns said. “There’s a lot more balance throughout the entire lineup. We’re just getting production from top to bottom, which has been key for us.”

Junior outfielder Joe McCarthy, who entered the year as an All-America candidate, missed UVa’s first 35 games with a back injury. Gerstenmaier, a freshman, sat out the first 35 games, too, and he’s batting .333 since his return.

Also, O’Connor noted, several of Gerstenmaier’s classmates — Haseley, Clement, Pavin Smith and Charlie Cody — have “a lot of at-bats under their belt now, and when you have that many at-bats under your belt, you’re no longer a freshman. They’ve grown up, and I think our offensive ballclub is a lot better today than it was two or three weeks ago.”

Eleven regular-season games remain for Virginia. Then the postseason begins.

“Everything that this team wants to accomplish is still out there in front of it,” O’Connor said. “It really is. It might just be a different way that we have to get it done than maybe we anticipated. We’re not going by the script that maybe we had thought we’d go by before the season started.

“We need to do a lot of things like we did tonight, quite frankly, and that is, different players need to step up. There’s going to have to be guys that are going to have to pitch quality innings for us on the mound that maybe haven’t done it much this year and haven’t really been relied on, and they’re going to have opportunities now in front of them.”

Towns said: “Obviously, you feel for those guys that are getting hurt, but at this point you’ve got to play, no matter what. The other teams out there aren’t going to feel sorry for you, they’re not going to play against you lightly just because you’re going through a tough time.

“Obviously, we’ve dealt with a lot of stuff, but I think we’ve done a good job of not letting that affect us and not using it as an excuse or anything.”

This has been a season unlike any other in O’Connor’s 12 seasons at Virginia, where his record is 540-192-2, and more twists may be coming.

“It’s going to be an intriguing rest of the year,” Sborz said, “and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”

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