By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For a Virginia baseball team looking to advance to the NCAA tournament for the 12th straight year, failing to qualify for the ACC tourney could have dire consequences.
The Cavaliers’ opponent Tuesday night at Davenport Field was Atlantic 10 member Richmond, and so the game had no effect on their standing in the ACC. Still, there was plenty at stake for UVa in its home finale.
“I thought it was very important for us to continue to have positive momentum going into this very important weekend down at North Carolina,” head coach Brian O’Connor said. “Winning gives you a good feeling, and that’s what we need, heading on that bus down to Chapel Hill [on Wednesday].”
The Wahoos will head south in good spirits after rallying to defeat the Spiders 8-6 before a crowd of 3,369 on an unseasonably warm night at Davenport. Daniel Pinero’s two-out single in the bottom of the eighth inning drove in Joe McCarthy and Ernie Clement. Alec Bettinger then retired UR in order in the ninth to secure the victory for Virginia (30-19 overall, 12-15), which closes the regular season with a three-game series at North Carolina (32-19, 13-13).
“We needed an energy booster,” said Pinero, one of four UVa players who had multiple hits Wednesday night. “Going into a big weekend season against UNC at their place, at Chapel Hill, we needed this win.”
Bettinger, who recently took over the closer’s role on an injury-ravaged pitching staff, was coming off a disastrous outing. The sophomore right-hander gave up four runs in the ninth inning Saturday and took the loss as Duke rallied for a 9-7 win at Davenport.
Against UR (26-21), which scored three runs off UVa starter Jack Roberts in the first inning, Bettinger replaced Adam Haseley in the eighth. The score was 6-6, and the Spiders had runners on first and third with none out. Bettinger struck out Aaron Newman and Tyler Beckwith and then retired Daniel Brumbaugh on a groundout.
“I kind of left with a bad taste in my mouth [Saturday night], and it was nice to get out there and do that,” Bettinger said.
Pinero, a two-year starter at shortstop, hit .261 as a freshman last season. He went 2 for 4 against Richmond to raise his average to .297.
“Last year at this time he was kind of hitting the wall a little bit, and his strength level is at a different level right now than it was last year,” O’Connor said.
The 6-5 Pinero said he’s about 10 pounds heavier than at this time last year. His confidence at the plate is palpable.
“I really wanted the opportunity to win the game for this team,” Pinero said of his final at-bat.
Another positive for the `Hoos was the performance of McCarthy, a junior outfielder who was expected to contend for All-America honors this season. Instead, he missed Virginia’s first 35 games after having back surgery, and he had struggled at the plate since his return to the lineup.
McCarthy, who came into the home finale batting .178, looked more like himself Tuesday night. He went 2 for 4 and collected his first extra-base hit of the season: a leadoff double in the eighth.
“I’ve been staying pretty positive for the past couple weeks,” McCarthy said. “[The slump] really hasn’t affected me at all. You’re going to have some bad [at-bats], and you’re going to have some good ABs that just don’t pay off.”
O’Connor said: “Joe’s had a great career here, and it’s unfortunate what’s happened to him this year, but now he’s back, he’s in the groove, and certainly we’re going to need his contributions this weekend at Chapel Hill for us to have success.”
UVa and UNC are scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Thursday, at 6:30 p.m. Friday and at noon Saturday. The first game can be seen on Regional Sports Networks, including Comcast SportsNet-Mid Atlantic, the second on ESPN3 and the third on ESPNU. The Virginia Sports Radio Network will broadcast the games on WINA (1070) and WINA.com.
In 2013, when Virginia closed the regular season at UNC, both teams were ranked in the top 10 nationally. The `Hoos took two of three from the Tar Heels to clinch the No. 3 seed in the ACC tournament.
“Certainly there’s something completely different on the line this year, but it doesn’t change anything,” O’Connor said.
If the 10-team ACC tourney started today, Virginia would be the last one in. But the Cavaliers probably need to win at least one game in Chapel Hill to assure themselves a spot in the tournament, which begins next week in Durham, N.C.
The players “know it could be the end of our season,” Pinero said.
McCarthy said: “I’ll speak for the entire team when I say we’re ready to compete for a playoff spot. This is a situation that we’ve never really been in during my time here, where we’re fighting to get into the postseason, but we’re looking forward to it.”
In 2013, the `Hoos ended the regular season with a 45-9 record and were locks for the NCAA tournament. In 2014, when they went on to reach the College World Series championship game, they came out of the regular season at 43-11.
“It’s definitely a lot different than last year at this time,” Bettinger said. “I’m really excited. I hope our team likes pressure. You should thrive off of that, so it should be good for our team.”
O’Connor said: “You’d rather be in that situation, where you control your own destiny. Certainly that’s going to take a great effort. It’s an effort that I think that we’re capable of. We’re going to have to play as consistent as we’ve played all year, but we are in the position that we don’t need anybody’s help. But that’s got to start with playing good baseball on Thursday night.”
The Cavaliers were far from perfect Tuesday night, but they found a way to win. In his final game at Davenport, senior third baseman Kenny Towns went 3 for 3. Sophomore first baseman Matt Thaiss had two hits, the second a bases-empty home run to right field that pushed UVa’s lead to 6-5 in the fifth.
“I’m just proud of our guys,” O’Connor said. “They picked each other up, and when a guy didn’t go out there and do the job in whatever area it was, there was a teammate picking him up, maybe the next at-bat or the next relief outing. It was just good to see everybody chip in … We won’t be playing back here till next year, so it’s good to win that game.”
Virginia, dominant at Davenport for most of O’Connor’s first 11 seasons as head coach, posted an 11-10 home record this year.
“It certainly has been a long journey and challenge this year,” O’Connor said. “But this is a great place. Certainly we have tremendous fans here. It’s a great ballpark to play in, and we’re looking forward to being back here playing here again next year.”
Pinero said: “It’s been a struggle for us this year as a team. But it’s playoff time, so anything can happen, and we needed this win today for this weekend coming up.”