By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Six weeks remain in the regular season for the University of Virginia baseball team, which, at 6-6 in conference play, finds itself in a precarious position.
During Brian O’Connor‘s long tenure as their head coach, the Cavaliers have never finished with a losing record in the ACC. With series against No. 2 Miami, No. 13 North Carolina and Georgia Tech looming, that adds significance to what awaits the Wahoos (19-12 overall) in New England this weekend.
Virginia, which has dropped two straight ACC series, is scheduled to play three games against Boston College (14-10, 3-7) in Chestnut Hill, Mass. — Friday at 2:30 p.m., Saturday at 1:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m.
“I think it’s very important that we come out and play like we did today,” sophomore Ernie Clement said Wednesday night. “You’ve got to treat every game, obviously, like it’s the most important game of the year, and I think if we go out with the same intensity we had today and same focus, we’re going to play a good game.”
Twenty-four hours after a disheartening loss to VCU in Richmond, Virginia overwhelmed George Washington at Davenport Field. In the bottom of the first inning, leadoff hitter Adam Haseley swatted the first pitch over the wall in right-center field, and the rout was on.
The `Hoos scored four more runs in the first. The final was 15-3 as Virginia won for only the second time in eight games.
In Virginia’s 7-5 loss to VCU, O’Connor said, he felt like his team was “just taking punches rather than giving them, quite frankly. And so I talked to the team after the game [in Richmond]. I was pretty disappointed, certainly, in the outcome, and told them that we needed to start throwing the punches first.
“So certainly I thought Adam Haseley, whether he hit the ball out of the ballpark or not, he set the tone by being aggressive at the first pitch. And I thought that we set the tone throughout the first inning. I thought that was a great inning for us. Certainly [GW] helped us with some walks, but I thought our guys stepped up and got some big hits, and that was good to see, and we really didn’t stop.”
This is O’Connor’s 13th season at UVA, where he has won 576 games and built one of the nation’s elite programs. During his tenure, the Cavaliers have advanced four times to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., where they won their first NCAA title last season.
“The expectations around here are very, very high,” O’Connor said. “We can talk about whether they’re fair or not, to be that case every year and every game and every week, but they are. They’re high, and they always will be, and that’s fine.”
With those expectations comes pressure, O’Connor knows. And so he was delighted to see the smiles on his players’ faces Wednesday when 5-9, 165-pound sophomore Justin Novak hit the first home run of his Virginia career.
“When you’re scuffling a little bit, like maybe we have the last couple weeks, it’s good to have something like that happen,” O’Connor said. “Your little catcher-infielder hitting a ball out is fun. They got excited, and maybe that loosens them up a little bit, and they’re ready to go play this weekend.”
The reaction to his homer, which barely cleared the wall in left field, was awesome, Novak said. “You see all your teammates being happy for you. It’s a good feeling to know everyone has your back.”
Asked about Novak’s historic hit, Clement laughed.
“We’re all just really happy that he has more home runs [this season] than Danny Pinero,” Clement said.
Virginia used six pitchers Wednesday, starting with senior left-hander David Rosenberger, who worked three scoreless innings. Following him were Holden Grounds, Bennett Sousa, Jack Roberts, Chesdin Harrington and, finally, Alec Bettinger.
“I thought collectively as a pitching staff tonight we did a nice job of kind of piecing it together,” O’Connor said. “I knew we’d have to do that to get through this ball game.”
Led by Novak, who was 3 for 4, the `Hoos totaled 16 hits against the Colonials (11-19). Haseley, Clement and sophomore Pavin Smith also had multiple hits for UVA, which had lost its previous two midweek games.
“Certainly the players have a little different step about them when you play a game like this, and you get a little bit more excited,” O’Connor said. “They’re young men. They’re 18 to 21, 22 years old. They’re emotional about things.
“I mean, shoot, I’ve been in this game long enough, I’m 44 years old, and I’m emotional about it. They’re human, and when things aren’t going your way, like maybe they haven’t been the last couple weeks, like we’ve wanted to or we’ve worked to have them go, it’s tough, and you get disappointed and you get down on yourself and sometimes you question yourself. But tonight hopefully gives them a positive feeling going into an important conference weekend on the road.”
In its most recent series, Virginia dropped the first and third games to NC State at Davenport Field. In the second game, Haseley made the first weekend start of his college career, and he was characteristically unfazed by the moment.
Haseley, a sophomore left-hander who starts in center field when he’s not on the mound, pitched six scoreless innings and earned the victory in the Cavaliers’ 5-3 win over the Wolfpack. But UVA’s other weekend starters — junior right-hander Connor Jones and sophomore right-hander Tommy Doyle — struggled on Friday and Sunday, respectively.
“I’m not going to make too much of it,” O’Connor said, “because I know we have six more weekends, but we obviously need to get ourselves off to good starts in games in league play, because the opponents are so tough.”
GW was not as formidable, but its visit to Charlottesville came at a perfect time for the home team.
“The good thing about baseball is we got to play the next day, after a tough loss last night,” Clement said. “I think this was huge, to kind of rebound after that. Heading into a weekend against Boston College, you definitely want to go in with a win under your belt, and it was really important for us.”