By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Two home runs in the sixth inning Thursday night — a bases-empty shot by freshman Cameron Simmons and a two-run blast by junior Matt Thaiss — helped the University of Virginia baseball team pull away from ACC rival Virginia Tech for an 8-3 victory at Davenport Field.
About 20 hours later, a two-run homer in the eighth by sophomore Charlie Cody cut the Cavaliers’ deficit to a single run, and by inning’s end they had the lead.
The Hokies pulled even in the top of the ninth, but the Wahoos scored in the bottom half of the inning to win 7-6 and secure their fifth straight ACC series victory.
“I love the home run. Who doesn’t?” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said Friday afternoon. “It allows you to come back when you’re behind, and it also allows you to separate like we did [Thursday] night with Thaiss’ home run.”
This is O’Connor’s 13th season with the Cavaliers, who are locks to make their 13th consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament next month.
Home runs have not always played a major role in UVA’s success under O’Connor. In 2014, for example, when they were runners-up at the College World Series, the `Hoos hit 33 homers in 69 games.
In 2015, when they won the College World Series, the `Hoos totaled 35 homers in 68 games.
O’Connor’s latest team has more power. Through 53 games, the eighth-ranked Cavaliers (35-18 overall, 18-11 ACC) have hit 34 home runs.
Thaiss, who had a team-high 10 homers in 2015, leads the Cavaliers again, with nine. Sophomores Pavin Smith and Adam Haseley have six homers apiece, Simmons has four, and Cody has three.
Cody, who was sidelined with a sprained ankle early in the season, has hit all three in the past 10 days.
“When it starts to get this time of the year, when the weather starts to heat up a little bit, the wind starts to blow a little bit, the ball can fly pretty good out of this ballpark,” O’Connor said.
Cody’s latest blast revived Virginia after an inning in which the Hokies (19-35, 6-23) hit two solo homers off reliever David Rosenberger to extend their lead to 5-2.
“I think there was a pretty big impact,” Cody said.
His coach agreed.
“Cody hits that two-run home run, cuts it within one run, and then all of the sudden you’re one swing away from tying the ballgame,” O’Connor said. “We’ve been in those situations, where all of the sudden now the game tightens up. You go from a three-run lead to a one-run lead. You start to be a little more fine with your pitches, and as it turns out that’s what happened.”
UVA’s next batter, Jack Gerstenmaier, drew a walk and then advanced to third on Simmons’ ground-rule double. The Hokies changed pitchers, but that didn’t stop the Cavaliers’ surge.
Gerstenmaier scored from third on classmate Ernie Clement’s sacrifice fly to left, Simmons came home on a throwing error by Tech third baseman Sam Fragale, and suddenly the `Hoos led 6-5.
The Hokies hurt themselves in the bottom of the ninth, too. With one out and the score 6-6, Virginia junior Daniel Pinero beat out an infield single and then stole second. Haseley walked, after which Ryan Lauria replaced Cole Kragel on the mound for the Virginia Tech. Moments later, the bases were loaded after shortstop Ryan Tufts flubbed a grounder from pinch-hitter Nate Eikhoff.
That brought up Gerstenmaier, who drew a game-ending walk on a 3-2 pitch that was low and inside.
“I felt for the guy,” Virginia pitcher Alec Bettinger said of Lauria. “It’s a tough spot.”
Bettinger started for the Cavaliers and went six innings. But this was an unusual outing for the junior right-hander, to say the least.
In the top of the first, Bettinger gave up only one hit but walked four batters, and the Hokies took a 3-0 run. During one stretch Bettinger threw 11 consecutive balls.
“Obviously I had trouble just finding the zone the first inning,” Bettinger said. “I was just struggling to do that. I just tried, I think, a little too hard to do that. And then I just came out there in the second inning and was like, `Well, I can’t just go out here walking people. I’m going to just throw it as hard as I can.’ And then I found a zone, found an arm slot, and everything just clicked from there.”
Bettinger’s lack of control early was “difficult to watch,” O’Connor said. “I’m sure it was difficult for him out there. But I think that him lasting through the sixth inning is what won us the ballgame, quite frankly. He really buckled down, and his last five innings were really, really good.”
After striking out the final two batters he faced in the first, Bettinger retired the next 10 in order. The Cavaliers trailed 3-1 when he left the game, but Bettinger kept the Hokies from adding to their early lead.
“I think that was the big lesson for him,” O’Connor said, “and our whole pitching staff, that you can have a tough early part of the game, but if you hang in there and pitch deep we’ve got a chance.”
Virginia closes the regular season against Virginia Tech at 4 p.m. Saturday.
The ACC tournament is next week in Durham, N.C., and the `Hoos will enter as one of the league’s hottest teams. They’ve won 11 of their past 13 games.
“We’re obviously feeling really good about ourselves right now,” O’Connor said. “We have been playing with a lot of confidence over the last four or five weeks. Certainly there’s carryover. I think when you [have confidence], you win ballgames like today.
“When you’re not feeling good about yourself, sometimes it’s difficult to win those. So, I would love to continue to play like we’re playing.”
O’Connor noted that the Cavaliers played well late in the 2015 regular season, too, only to struggle in the ACC tournament, after which they “went off on a tear for four weeks. So it’s hard to know for sure, but if you had your choice, you’d rather just continue to play really good baseball like we’re playing right now.”
Cody said: “We’re having fun, we’re winning ballgames. That’s what it comes down to, winning games, and it’s a lot more fun than losing.”