By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After a triumphant trip to Chapel Hill, N.C., the UVa baseball team returned home on Saturday night, which allowed seniors Kenny Towns and Thomas Woodruff to walk the Lawn during final exercises on Sunday.
On Monday morning, the Cavaliers boarded their charter bus and headed south again, this time to Durham, N.C., where the ACC tournament will be played this week.
“We’re excited to come back to Durham,” Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor said on a teleconference Monday.
For the Wahoos’ stay in that city to be an extended one, they’ll need to win Tuesday. In a play-in game, No. 7 seed Virginia (33-19) meets No. 10 Georgia Tech (32-22) at 11 a.m. at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
The winner will join No. 2 seed Miami, No. 3 seed Notre Dame and No. 6 seed NC State in Pool B of the eight-team ACC tourney. The loser will head home to await next Monday’s NCAA tournament selection show.
Win or lose Tuesday, UVa is a virtual lock to advance to the NCAA tourney for the 12th time in O’Connor’s 12 seasons as head coach. Virginia, which swept its three-game series with North Carolina in Chapel Hill, is No. 19 in the RPI rankings released Monday by the NCAA.
“Certainly [the regular season] was a little bit of a roller-coaster ride,” O’Connor said, but the ‘Hoos never derailed. They’ve won six of their past seven games.
“We’re really, really proud of our team and how we’ve hung in there all year long,” O’Connor said. “We believe that we’re just starting to play some of our best baseball.”
Towns said: “I think especially after this past weekend, sweeping UNC, we have a lot of confidence going [to Durham], and knowing we have Josh Sborz on the mound for us for the play-in game is crucial. That gives us even more confidence.”
Sborz, who began the season as the Cavaliers’ closer, will start Tuesday. The junior right-hander is 2-2 with a 2.49 earned-run average.
Because of injuries to such players as Joe McCarthy, Nathan Kirby, John La Prise, Jack Gerstenmaier, Robbie Coman and Derek Casey, O’Connor never had his full roster available during the regular season. Not surprisingly, a team that relies heavily on underclassmen — five freshmen have started at least 20 games each — struggled at times.
“Hopefully we’re at the point now that I think a lot of those young freshmen have gotten a lot of at-bats, and they’ve really improved,” O’Connor said.
Virginia and Georgia Tech met last month in a three-game series in Atlanta. The Cavaliers romped 14-4 in the April 10 opener, but the Yellow Jackets took the next two games, winning 11-4 and 4-3.
McCarthy, a junior outfielder who missed UVa’s first 35 games while recovering from back surgery, didn’t play against the Jackets last month. His 2015 debut came April 15, three days after the series finale in Atlanta.
Virginia’s freshmen “have continued to get better,” Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said Monday, “and getting McCarthy back in the lineup, you get a bat like that back in your lineup, it just makes everyone else around him better.”
The `Hoos are 12-5 since the return of McCarthy, who batted .500 (4 for 8) against the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill.
“When you have all those young players in the lineup, he’s somebody that can add a presence to that lineup,” O’Connor said. “There’s just a maturity that he shows in the batter’s box. There’s a maturity that he shows by playing the game, and I think it’s really made a big difference for us, and I think it’s going to continue to do that for us.”
Towns, who was named to the All-ACC second team at third base on Monday, said he never lost faith in his team, even as the injuries mounted for the Cavaliers.
“One thing I wanted to make sure I always did was go out there and have hope,” Towns said at Davenport Field, “because I knew we were capable of making a good run and playing well, which we’ve been showing this past couple weeks.”
For Towns, the high point of the regular season might have come in the series finale at Chapel Hill. After UNC pulled to 2-2 with a two-run home run in the bottom of the fifth inning, Virginia responded with five runs in the top of the sixth Saturday and went on to win 8-2.
“It just showed a lot, to be able to fight back like that,” Towns said.
Such resilience has become a trademark of this UVa team. Coming out of their break for final exams, the `Hoos needed a strong finish to the regular season to even qualify for an ACC tournament play-in game, and they delivered.
In its penultimate ACC series, Virginia took two of three games from Duke at Davenport Field. Then, after defeating Richmond 8-6, UVa swept a three-game series from UNC in Chapel Hill for the first time.
His team has been in playoff mode for most of this month, O’Connor said, and “hopefully that’s a mode that will continue.”
Georgia Tech, meanwhile, stumbled late in the regular season. After losing 6-0 to Georgia at Turner Field in Atlanta, the Jackets traveled to Coral Gables, Fla., for a three-game series with ACC rival Miami.
The Hurricanes won all three games, by a combined score of 42-5.
“The weekend we had was certainly not what we wanted,” Hall said. “But I’ll credit Miami. They have an outstanding team and played really well at home all year. So we’ve got to turn our focus now to trying to win this tournament, and the only way we can get in the tournament is to win the game tomorrow.”
Redshirt sophomore left-hander Jonathan King (4-4, 3.24) will start Tuesday for defending ACC champion Georgia Tech, which took an improbable path to the title last year. Seeded ninth, the Jackets defeated Wake Forest in a play-in game and then went on to capture the ACC tournament.
Virginia is seeking its first ACC title since 2011. Don’t count out the Cavaliers, Towns said.
“With the way the tournament’s been the past couple years,” he said, “we’re that kind of spunky team that’s coming in and playing well at the right time and has a chance to win that tournament.”
BROADCAST INFORMATION: The ACC’s Regional Sports Networks (Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic in Virginia and Maryland) will televise all tournament games through Saturday. The games also will be streamed online on ESPN3.
ESPN2 will broadcast the championship game Sunday.
Also, UVa’s live radio broadcasts are available on VirginiaSports.com through a Cavaliers Live subscription. A link to live statistics also can be found on VirginiaSports.com.
WINA 1070-AM and WINA.com will carry the live local radio broadcasts of all UVa postseason games.