By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A stretch of eight consecutive road games — Virginia’s longest run away from home in 13 seasons under head coach Brian O’Connor — started in Miami with the tragic loss of the team’s longtime bus driver, Bernard Martin.
It ended in Martin’s hometown, Lynchburg, in front of six of his family members, who saw UVA defeat Liberty 7-3 on Tuesday night.
Martin, 72, lost consciousness on April 21 while driving the bus carrying the Cavaliers from the Miami airport to their hotel. He passed away later that day.
Before the game Tuesday night, Liberty honored Martin’s memory with a moment of silence and prayer, and his grandson, Justin Cash, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
“Certainly we’re very, very grateful to Liberty University and [head coach] Jim Toman,” said O’Connor, who along with his assistants attended Martin’s funeral service in Lynchburg on April 27.
“Coach Toman totally went above and beyond, out of his way, to honor Bernard and have his family there and make it a really special evening for them.”
Much has changed for the defending NCAA champion Wahoos (31-17 overall, 14-10 ACC) since they departed for Florida on April 21. They went 7-1 on the historic road swing and now head into final exams on a six-game winning streak. Moreover, their RPI has steadily improved and now stands at No. 16.
Heading into this stretch of road games, O’Connor was asked Wednesday, would he have been happy with a 5-3 record? Maybe so, he acknowledged, but O’Connor said he doesn’t spend time pondering potential scenarios.
“You kind of take it as it comes,” he said. “And then obviously when you take two of three from Miami and then you win at Old Dominion, now you start to get greedy.”
After defeating ODU in Norfolk on April 26, Virginia swept three games from ACC rival Pitt last weekend. Then came the win over Liberty.
The surge has come at an ideal time for the `Hoos, O’Connor said, “because in the RPI system, you’re highly rewarded for winning on the road, and so it took us from one area in the national landscape to a totally different one. So there’s that piece of it, but the most important piece is obviously the confidence that our team has in their ability.”
Final exams start Thursday at the University, and the Cavaliers won’t play again until May 13, when they open a three-game series with ACC foe Georgia Tech at Davenport Field.
In 2015, Virginia came out of final exams and won six of its final seven regular-season games, so O’Connor isn’t worried that the break will hurt his team.
“It’s just something you deal with,” he said. “I don’t look at it as a bad thing. I choose to look at the positives of the situation. I choose to look at it as an opportunity for us to get ready for this important stretch run.
“Our final seven [regular-season] games are at home, and our guys will be fresh and ready to go coming out of the break.”
Those players include junior catcher Matt Thaiss, an All-America candidate who leads the team in batting average (.366) and home runs (seven). He’s second in RBI (44).
“Matt has essentially caught every inning for us for quite some time,” O’Connor said, “including a doubleheader that was followed up with another game 12 hours later at Pittsburgh. [The break] helps a guy like that get his legs about him again.”
Of the Cavaliers who have played in at least 20 games this season, seven are hitting .289 or better: Thaiss, sophomores Ernie Clement (.346) and Pavin Smith (.330), freshman Nate Eikhoff (.318), junior Daniel Pinero (.311), and sophomores Adam Haseley (.293) and Justin Novak (.289).
The Cavaliers have surged over the past two weeks in part, O’Connor said, because the players “understood that there was a sense of urgency that we needed to have, based on where we were at that point and what was left in the season.”
Moreover, O’Connor said, “You’re starting to see signs of guys getting better. During this stretch, [freshman] Cam Simmons from an offensive standpoint has taken his game to another level, similar to what those guys that were freshmen last year did, guys like Clement and Haseley. When the at-bats start to pile up and they start to understand what they need to do, up goes the consistency.
“Also, too, we’ve started to settle in with more consistency in our everyday lineup. Justin Novak has settled in at third base, and [sophomore] Charlie Cody during this stretch has done a really good job in left field. So we’ve been able to solidify some things with some consistency.”
On the mound, junior right-hander Connor Jones (9-1, 1.95 ERA) has pitched brilliantly. No surprise there. Jones was a weekend starter in 2015, too, and he’s projected as a first-round pick in next month’s MLB draft.
More of a revelation has been right-hander Tyler Shambora, who played for a junior college in Florida last season. Shambora pitched 4.1 scoreless innings of relief Tuesday night and earned the victory, raising his record to 5-0 and dropping his ERA to 3.40.
“Coming out of the fall, I thought that he would be a key guy for us,” O’Connor said, “I really did, because he showed in the fall that he was going to throw strikes and he had an ability to change speeds, and his aptitude was pretty quick in learning what we need to do here at this level to be successful.”
Neither O’Connor nor pitching coach Karl Kuhn, however, knew exactly what Shambora’s role would be this season.
“Would it be an inning here, an inning there?” O’Connor said. “Would it be a spot start in the middle of the week? I knew he was versatile enough to do some different things. But Coach Kuhn and I talked a lot about who was going to fall into this role of potentially long relief out of the bullpen. We’ve had some guys in that role in the past that have done such a terrific job, and over time here Tyler has really established himself as that guy.”
Another recent positive has been sophomore Tommy Doyle’s performance since he replaced junior Alec Bettinger last month as the Cavaliers’ closer. Doyle, a 6-6 right-hander, worked the final 1.2 innings for Virginia against Liberty, striking out three, walking none and allowing no hits.
“That’s been a big difference for us,” O’Connor said, “and that’s not to take anything away from Alec Bettinger, because you look at the stat sheet and that guy had seven saves, and that was at the midway point [of the season]. That’s pretty good, halfway through the season, to have seven saves, and there weren’t many closers in the country that had that.
“I just think that Tommy has really taken off in that role, and I think it’s made a big difference for us. When he initially went to it, when we went to Boston College, I know we had a couple walk-off losses, but he pitched really, really well, and he gave us a chance to win. Since then he’s been Mr. Reliable.”
The players have Wednesday and Thursday off, and their focus for most the next week will be on final exams. Then the push for the postseason resumes. O’Connor likes his players’ mindset.
“They’ve put it together,” O’Connor said. “The biggest thing is, they understand what they need to do to be successful on a daily basis, and with that and the wins have come a high level of confidence and an expectation to win.”