April 17, 2016

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — At his postgame press conference, University of Virginia baseball coach Brian O’Connor repeated the message he’d delivered to his players a few minutes earlier. The way the Cavaliers played Friday night, O’Connor said, did not carry over to Saturday, and so the way they played Saturday should not carry over to the finale of their ACC series with 13th-ranked North Carolina.

At noon Sunday, UVA (22-15 overall, 8-9 overall) hosts Coastal Division rival UNC (24-11, 9-8) at Davenport Field. A victory would give the Wahoos their first series victory in nearly a month. Since taking two of three games from Wake Forest in Charlottesville, reigning NCAA champion Virginia has dropped best-of-three series to Louisville, NC State and Boston College.

Moreover, the Cavaliers have lost the final game in each of their past six weekend series.

For a team hoping to advance to the NCAA tournament for the 13th consecutive season, the finale against North Carolina looms large, “and I think it’s important to put today away,” sophomore Adam Haseley said Saturday night. “It’s a new day, and it’s definitely important that we come out focused and ready to play.”

The `Hoos were locked in Friday night, when they defeated the Tar Heels 7-4 in the series opener, but they broke down repeatedly Saturday. Aided by two Virginia errors, UNC broke the game open with a four-run sixth inning and went on to win 8-1 before a season-high crowd of 4,975 at Davenport Field.

Sunday brings another opportunity for the `Hoos, who are seeking their fourth straight series win over the Heels.

“That’s the beauty of baseball,” UVa first baseman Pavin Smith said Saturday night. “We can just forget about this game and go out tomorrow with a clean slate and try to win the series.”

Smith, a sophomore, went 3 for 4 on Saturday, but his teammates were a combined 2 for 27 against UNC pitchers J.B. Bukauskas, Brett Daniels, Cole Aker and Spencer Trayner.

Bukauskas, a sophomore right-hander from Stone Bridge High in Northern Virginia, dominated. The ACC leader in strikeouts, Bukauskas fanned 11 on Saturday and allowed only four hits in seven innings Saturday.

“He’s one of the toughest pitchers we’ve faced all year,” Smith said. “If he has his command and he’s on, then he’s pretty tough to beat. But you gotta do the best you can to try to put it in play.”

With a wicked slider and a fastball that reached 98 miles per hour, Bukauskas kept UVA batters off-balance throughout. In the fourth inning, after back-to-back singles by junior Matt Thaiss and Smith, junior Daniel Pinero’s sacrifice bunt gave Virginia runners on second and third with one but. But Bukauskas struck out the next two batters to quell the threat.

“Certainly would have liked to have gotten a run there and gotten something on the board, and certainly it shows why he’s so talented,” O’Connor said.

Haseley, a sophomore left-hander, started for the `Hoos, and through five innings he had given up only one run, on a Kyle Datres home run in the fifth. But Haseley struggled in the sixth, and with one out O’Connor went to the bullpen.

That did little to slow the Tar Heels’ momentum. After Smith’s RBI double made it 5-1 in the bottom of the fifth, UNC added three runs in the sixth.

Consistency has eluded the Cavaliers’ relievers this season, and that was the case again Saturday, when Tyler Shambora, Bennett Sousa, Chesdin Harrington and Jack Roberts combined for eight walks. The Heels had only seven hits, but they pounced on UVA’s mistakes.

“We had 10 walks on the day, and you just can’t do that and beat a good opponent,” O’Connor said. “I don’t know if you can do that and beat anybody. It’s just too much to overcome … We didn’t take care of the game, and that is handling the baseball and throwing strikes, and when you don’t do that, it’s going to be difficult to win.”

On Sunday, Alec Bettinger (0-4, 4.37 earned-run average) will start on the mound for Virginia. Bettinger’s first 15 appearances this season came in relief, but O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn shook up the starting rotation last weekend at Boston College. Sophomore right-hander Tommy Doyle moved to the bullpen, and Bettinger started the series finale.

The junior right-hander struck out five and allowed only one run and three hits.

“I was very happy,” O’Connor said. “He threw five great innings. We’re certainly trying to build [Bettinger] up, and I’m happy with the way that Tommy Doyle threw as well, and as of right now it’s a move that I think makes us better. Alec is a veteran pitcher, and it’s important that he comes out tomorrow and gives us a good start … I’m confident that he’ll do that and we’ll play good baseball.”

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