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June 12, 2015

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OMAHA, Neb. — Professional baseball players have spring training. College players have about a month in January and February to fine-tune their swings before the games begin.

University of Virginia junior Joe McCarthy had none of that. He underwent back surgery in late January and missed the Cavaliers’ first 35 games this season. His 2015 debut came April 15.

“Joe gets released, and four or five days later he’s playing in games,” UVa associate head coach Kevin McMullan said Friday at TD Ameritrade Park. “So really the last third of the year, it’s his spring training.”

McCarthy, a three-year starter in the outfield, hit .336 and was named the ACC freshman of the year in 2013. He hit .301 and was named to the All-ACC first team in 2014, when the Wahoos were NCAA runners-up, and he entered his junior year as a preseason All-American.

His long layoff, not surprisingly, affected McCarthy’s numbers this spring, and he’s hitting only .225 this season. But Virginia is back in the College World Series, which starts Saturday afternoon, and McCarthy is rounding into form.

“I think at the back end here he’s starting to get adjusted a little bit, starting to do some of the fundamental things that have made him the great hitter that he is, and I think he’s in tune at the perfect time of the year for us,” said McMullan, UVa’s hitting coach.

Through five games in the NCAA tournament — all victories for the ‘Hoos — McCarthy is hitting .294. Only sophomore catcher Matt Thaiss (.421) and Pavin Smith (.375) have better batting averages in the tournament for Virginia.

“I was just going up there not really feeling like myself in the [batter’s] box those first couple weeks back, but at the same I was going up there ready to compete and play tough baseball,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “So that’s what I did, and then as the swing started to get under me, I started to feel better at the plate and started to produce more.”

It’s challenging, McMullan said, “when you come back right away and you don’t have the success that you want, and it’s about confidence. You can see his body starting to adjust to what it was before and you can see him starting to get on the inside part of the ball, and with that you build confidence internally, and I think Joe’s done that the last three weeks.”

In a game ESPN will televise, UVa (39-22) opens the College World Series against Arkansas (40-23) at 3 p.m. (EST) Saturday. McCarthy will be easy to spot. He’s the big left-hander — 6-3, 215 pounds — wearing jersey No. 31 and sporting an impressive patch of hair on his chin.

“We thought, `Let’s go with playoff beards this year,’ ” McCarthy recalled Friday, laughing. “But we go into the ACC tournament and unfortunately go 0-3. So we decided, `No, we got it wrong. It’s actually playoff goatees.’ We got rid of the sides, and now we’re all rocking goatees.”

In 12 seasons under head coach Brian O’Connor, Virginia has advanced to the NCAA tournament each time. For stretches during the regular season, however, it appeared that streak might end this year. That the Cavaliers’ late-season surge has coincided with McCarthy’s return to the lineup, O’Connor said, is no coincidence.

“Not just because of Joe McCarthy, [but] because I think it spread our lineup out more and gave us more depth throughout the lineup,” O’Connor said last weekend at Davenport Field, where Virginia needed only two games to defeat Maryland in their best-of-three NCAA super regional.

McCarthy said: “We’ve had our ups and downs this year, but throughout the whole thing we’ve been staying positive. With the young team we have, you’re going to have your ups and downs, you’re going to have your growing pains, but we’ve stayed positive and we’re starting to play good baseball at the most important time.”

His classmates on the team include pitcher Brandon Waddell. Both were selected in the fifth round Tuesday in the Major League Baseball draft, McCarthy by Tampa Bay and Waddell by Pittsburgh.

Waddell, who’s from Houston, remembers his first impression of McCarthy, who’s from Scranton, Pa., when they enrolled at UVa in the summer of 2012.

“This is a huge dude that’s really, really athletic,” Waddell said, smiling. “He’s an awesome guy. He’s hilarious, too, so it was nice to get to know him and be able to play these three years with him.”

To be sidelined after surgery and then, after returning to the lineup, to struggle at the plate wasn’t easy for McCarthy, but he’s “a guy that’s always been high-spirited, regardless of what’s going on,” Waddell said. “He understands the situation. He’s really mature with everything that goes on. He understands that he can still help his teammates, whether it’s on the field or off the field.”

Never mind McCarthy’s statistics this season, Waddell said. “In our eyes he’s still an All-American. He’s a guy that’s a really top talent, top bat. We love having him in the lineup. He’s a guy that can change the game in one swing, and I think it’s just huge for him to be healthy and in the lineup.”

One such swing came May 30, on the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament. In Virginia’s second game at the Lake Elsinore regional in California, against San Diego State, McCarthy came to the plate with one out in the bottom of the fifth inning. Smith was on the first, and the `Hoos trailed 1-0.

McMullan, coaching third base, called for a hit and run, but McCarthy failed to make contact on the pitch.

“I swung through a hit and run,” McCarthy said Friday. “Got Pavin thrown out at second.”

Determined to redeem himself, McCarthy did so in dramatic fashion, blasting a fastball over the 36-foot wall in right field for his first home run of the season.

“I think it was big for a lot of reasons,” McMullan said. “He’d missed the hit and run earlier in the at-bat and he didn’t let it bother him, which tells you about his confidence. He makes an adjustment, he picks his team up, and obviously hammers the ball over the fence.”

As he rounded third, McCarthy recalled, he looked at McMullan “and said, `That’s for messing up the hit and run.’ And Coach Mac came in the dugout and said, `Thank you.’ ”

This has been an unusually trying season for McCarthy, but his perseverance has been rewarded.

“I just tried to stay positive towards it,” he said. “Knowing the recovery time, I understood that I would come back in the later half of the season, at the most important time, so that helped me to stay positive, knowing that I’d be back at some point. Coming back, I knew I didn’t have all reps under my belt, but I was trying to bring energy and excitement to this team, and now we’re just getting rolling and we’re here in Omaha.”

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