By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The hardest-throwing disc jockey in this college town loves making people dance, and the day may come when Connor Jones can devote more time to his passion for music.
For now, though, he’s a full-time University of Virginia student-athlete — baseball is his sport of choice — who spins tunes at a Corner establishment as his schedule permits.
“It’s more of an offseason thing,” said Jones, a sophomore pitcher from Chesapeake.
Jones and his teammates want to delay the start of the offseason as long as possible. With seven regular-season games remaining, the Wahoos have work to do.
Heading into their three-game series with ACC rival Duke (27-19, 7-16) at Davenport Field, the `Hoos (27-18, 10-14) are still battling for a spot in the conference tournament. Moreover, the Cavaliers must finish strong to advance to the NCAA tourney for the 12th time in Brian O’Connor‘s 12 seasons as head coach.
“I think we all know that it’s coming down to the point now where we’re going to have to put a little streak together here,” Jones said. “But I think we know that if we keep playing good baseball and we’re doing our best, things will come together.”
This has been an uncharacteristically turbulent season for Virginia, which was picked to win the ACC. Injuries have sidelined several key players for long stretches, including outfielder Joe McCarthy, who missed the first 35 games while recovering from back surgery, and All-America left-hander Nathan Kirby, who strained his left latissimus dorsi muscle April 17 and has not pitched since.
“I felt really bad for Nathan, first off,” Jones said. “I know he doesn’t want us to feel bad for him, but he’s been grinding and plugging away all year, and to see that happen to him, it stinks. But I think it’s given us a sharpened focus. We don’t have necessarily the wiggle room that we had before, so it’s really time to step up.”
With Kirby out, Jones has taken over as the team’s Friday starter. In his debut in that role, April 24 against NC State, the 6-3, 200-pound right-hander matched his career high with 11 strikeouts and earned the victory in UVa’s 8-3 win.
In his previous start, April 18 against the Miami Hurricanes, Jones also fanned 11 batters.
“His last couple starts have been really good,” UVa pitching coach Karl Kuhn said, “and they couldn’t have come at a better time, with us losing Nathan for a period of time. I think Connor realizes the team needs him, and he’s stepped up and given us two quality starts.”
Jones said he’s “been going out there with a little bit more of the mindset of attacking and being aggressive. Not just trying to make a pitch, but trying to dominate the pitch and really be aggressive and attack.”
For the season, Jones is 5-2 with a 3.53 earned-run average. He’s struck out 73 batters in 66.1 innings.
“For me, it almost seems like a microcosm of what’s been going on for the team,” said Jones, an American Studies major at UVa.
“There’s been some ups and downs, but as a whole I’ve been steadily [improving]. There were times where I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I knew I was getting close. Despite how it looked in the field or how it looked in the box score, I knew to myself it was headed in the right direction.”
After Jones earned the victory to open the series against NC State, the `Hoos stumbled in the next two games, losing each one on a walk-off home run.
“Yeah, it was frustrating,” Jones said. “I think that’s similar to how our year’s been as a whole as well. We had plenty of opportunities to capitalize, whether it be offensively or to close out an inning. It was just unfortunate that it turned out the way it did, with two walk-offs like that. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that ever happening before.”
Two nights after the series finale in Raleigh, UVa lost 3-1 to Old Dominion in Norfolk. The Friday night opener against Duke will be Virginia’s first game in 10 days. ESPNU will televise the 8 o’clock game.
“I think this exam break will definitely help us,” Jones said, “just allowing everyone to kind of catch their breath. Because it seems like this year we’ve just been taking one blow after another, and there hasn’t been a chance to step back and kind of collect ourselves and take a deep breath.”
Even so, Jones said, “I feel like the team’s handled it really well. We’ve just kept plugging along. We’ve kind of rolled with it. No one’s freaked out or panicked.”
A graduate of Great Bridge High School, Jones was considered the jewel of the recruiting class that enrolled at UVa in the summer of 2013. As a freshman, he made 25 appearances, all but one out of the bullpen, and posted a 4-1 record with a 3.13 ERA. But he faded as the season wore on, and his final appearance came May 30 in the NCAA tournament’s Charlottesville Regional.
The `Hoos went on to reach the best-of-three championship series of the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., where they lost to Vanderbilt in the third game.
“I think the wall for me last year was more mental than physical,” Jones said. “I felt fine last year physically.”
Kuhn, who like O’Connor in his 12th season at UVa, said it’s not unusual for “a freshman to hit that mental wall. Sometimes it can be physical as well as mental.”
A season that starts in mid February can last until late June, “which is a grind,” Kuhn said. “That’s a long time to stay sharp and stay in tune for a freshman who’s never seen that before. Also, Connor was relieving, so he wasn’t quite sure when his number would be called.”
This year, Jones said, he’s ready to keep “chugging along.”
Kuhn said: “He’s maturing, and that’s what college is for. That’s what this whole process is for.”
After UVa’s season ended last year, Jones headed to New Hampshire, along with teammates Robbie Coman, Jack Roberts and Alec Bettinger, to play in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. Jones’ plans for this summer have not been set.
“I’m assigned to a team in the Cape [Cod League],” he said, “but I think a lot of it will depend on how many innings I end up throwing this year and how many the coaches want me to throw.”
If he ends up taking summer classes at UVa, Jones should be able to showcase his skills as a deejay, too.
“It’s fun,” Jones said. “I love it. I love music. I actually taught myself freshman year how to do it all, and kind of networked my way in.”
Asked if he’s ever stopped by the Corner to watch Jones at work, Kuhn laughed.
Jones occasionally gets to play “a little of his music” at Davenport Field during batting practice, Kuhn said, “but I don’t think I’ll ever go down there and check out his deejaying prowess. We don’t want to infringe on their personal time and space. They need that.”