By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — His reading glasses were elsewhere at Davenport Field, and without them University of Virginia baseball coach Brian O’Connor struggled to make out the details of the box score in front of him Tuesday evening.
Highlights abounded in the defending NCAA champion’s home opener — the fourth-ranked Cavaliers (3-1) rang up 18 hits against VMI — and so it was understandable if O’Connor did not immediately recall all of them. But he brightened when reminded about Pavin Smith’s performance.
“From day one I’ve always loved Pavin Smith’s approach at the plate,” O’Connor said. “It’s a very advanced approach that gives him a chance to be really successful.”
In an 18-1 victory, the Cavaliers’ cleanup hitter had an RBI double, a sacrifice fly, and a grand slam. Those last two at-bats came in Virginia’s 11-run third inning, a Davenport Field record.
Smith, who watched the latter innings from the dugout after freshman Nate Eikhoff replaced him at first base, finished 2 for 2 with a career-high six RBI.
“Like everybody says, hits are kind of contagious,” Smith said. “I don’t know how it happens. It doesn’t happen very often, obviously, scoring 11 runs in one inning, but it was pretty amazing.”
As a freshman last year, the 6-2 Smith started every game for the Cavaliers, as did classmate Adam Haseley, who made his 2016 pitching debut Tuesday.
Smith, who split time between first base and the outfield in 2015, recorded a team-high 83 hits to help the Wahoos win the College World Series and capture their first NCAA title. And he did so with an injured elbow that required Tommy John surgery about a week after the season ended.
To say he’s recovering well would be a colossal understatement. Through four games, Smith leads Virginia with a .692 batting average. He’s also first on the team in doubles (three) and RBI (nine) and tied for the lead in hits (nine) and home runs (one).
“I feel 100 percent,” said Smith, who weighs about 210 pounds, some 20 more than he did at the end of last season.
The renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews operated on Smith, a graduate of Palm Beach Gardens High in Florida. An extended period of rehabilitation followed for Smith.
“He was in a sling all summer and couldn’t hit all fall,” O’Connor said, “[and] from a developmental standpoint, that would have been a pretty pivotal time for him … But I was really proud of him through the fall. He was really, really engaged. His mind was on the game, and he was continuing to learn and get better.”
During fall ball at UVA, Smith served as a first-base coach.
“I was just trying to help the first-years [and] keep my mind into it,” Smith said, “try to tell them things I’ve learned.”
Those freshmen include Jake McCarthy, whose brother, Joe, starred for the `Hoos in 2013, ’14 and ’15. The younger McCarthy started in center field Tuesday and went 3 for 5, with two RBI.
Asked about playing with Smith, McCarthy smiled.
“The kid’s fun to watch, and the kid’s fun to play with,” McCarthy said. “Whenever I feel lost, or any other freshmen seem to not know what’s going on, we look to guys like Adam Haseley and Pavin Smith. They always seem to be doing things the right way … Just the way they carry themselves, and the way they approach the game, is definitely something that you want to [emulate].”
The left-handed Smith said his elbow felt fine early in 2015, but it started to bother him by the middle of the season.
“But I still played,” he recalled. “It wasn’t catastrophic. My arm felt all right. And then by the end of the year it just seemed to all go away. Maybe it was adrenaline, where playing in Omaha all the pain goes away.”
He played a starring role in the deciding game of the CWS Finals, hitting a two-run homer, and finished the season with a .307 batting average — third-highest on the team. After returning from Omaha, though, Smith decided to proceed with Tommy John surgery, a decision that proved wise.
“Dr. Andrews actually said when he went into my elbow that it was hanging on by a thread,” Smith said.
Once Virginia’s Orange and Blue World Series ended in late October, Smith said, he started working at the plate again.
“It was just dry swings [at first],” he said, “and then it was just [with a] tee, slowly: five swings and then 15 swings and then 60 swings.”
For now, Smith will play only first base, but the strength in his left arm is steadily increasing.
“As he continues to progress with his throwing program, there will be a point in time he’ll progress to potentially going back out to the outfield again, too,” O’Connor said.
In high school, Smith also excelled on the mound. As a senior, he went 5-0 with a 0.66 earned-run average, striking out 54 and walking only six in 32 innings. Could he pitch at UVA?
“We’re taking it day by day,” Smith said, smiling. “But I think maybe next year I might give it a shot. I’m not exactly sure.”
There are no questions about his future as a hitter. In the first inning Tuesday, Smith drove in Haseley with a double. In the third, Smith came up with the bases loaded and ripped a line drive into center field. Matt Pita made the catch for the Keydets (2-3), but Haseley scored again.
Later that inning, Smith came up again with the bases loaded, this time with two outs. He hammered the ball to the top row of the right-field bleachers, clearing the bases of Haseley, Ernie Clement and Matt Thaiss.
“I was just trying to stick with my approach of going up the middle,” Smith said. “It just happened to be inside a little bit, a little low, and I just turned on it. I wasn’t really thinking about trying to hit a home run or anything. Just trying to get a base hit. I didn’t want to be the one to end the rally.”
Also with multiple hits for the Cavaliers on a cool, damp afternoon were sophomore Jack Gerstenmaier (2 for 2) and four freshmen: McCarthy, Cameron Simmons (2 for 4), Doak Dozier (2 for 5) and Andy Weber (2 for 3).
Another notable storyline Tuesday was the UVA pitching debut of senior Robbie Coman, who had played catcher exclusively in college until Tuesday. Coman, a right-hander, struck out two and allowed two hits in 2.1 scoreless innings of relief. He’ll continue to work at both positions for the Cavaliers.
“He throws strikes,” O’Connor said. “He’s got good velocity. He’s got a good slider. He gets on the mound and works fast. You can see his demeanor on the mound. I love his demeanor on the mound. So we’ll see where it takes us.”
The victory over VMI kicked off a 10-game homestand for the `Hoos. Next up is a three-game series with East Carolina (4-0) at Davenport Field. UVA and ECU are scheduled to meet at 3 p.m. Friday, at 1 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. Sunday.