By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
DURHAM, N.C. — The weekend will not end with an ACC championship for the University of Virginia baseball team. That became official at 1:58 p.m. Friday, when Clemson recorded the final out in a 5-3 victory over Louisville, a result that eliminated UVA from title contention at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
The rest of the day went little better for the seventh-ranked Cavaliers, who lost 10-9 to Wake Forest before a crowd of 3,027 in a game that ended around 6:30 p.m. Still, there were positives for UVA (36-20) in its second straight one-run loss, among them the performance of freshman pitcher Daniel Lynch.
A 6-4, 175-pound left-hander from Richmond, Lynch entered the game with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning against Wake (34-24). He retired the only batter he faced in the seventh and then, in the eighth, sent the side down in order.
“I felt great,” said Lynch, who struck out two batters in the eighth. “It was nice just to go out there and be able to compete again. It was a cool atmosphere.”
The appearance was Lynch’s 10th of the season but first since April 13, when he pitched five innings in a midweek start against Longwood. Lynch (1-3, 5.30 ERA) injured his back in practice a few days later, and then experienced a couple of setbacks during his recovery, including a case of food poisoning that knocked him out of a scheduled start against Liberty.
With the start of the NCAA tournament a week away, Lynch’s return to the mound was well-timed.
“I think it was important for Daniel Lynch to get out there and pitch,” Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor said, “and I thought he pitched really, really well. It was good to see, because we’re going to need him moving forward at some point.”
Third-seeded Virginia, which lost 5-4 to Clemson on Thursday, will play its final game in this tournament Saturday at 7 p.m. against second-seeded Louisville (47-11). Clemson can advance to the ACC championship game with a win over Wake earlier Saturday. If the Tigers lose that game, a UVA win over Louisville would send the Demon Deacons to the title game.
O’Connor wanted to use Lynch in one of UVA’s final two games in Durham. Against Wake, “the situation dictated it,” O’Connor said, “and I thought the kid threw the ball really, really well. It’s a real bright spot for us moving into next weekend, that we have confidence in him.”
Lynch began the season as one of the Wahoos’ weekend starters, and in his college debut he threw five scoreless innings and earned the win Feb. 19 against Appalachian State.
“Honestly, I think probably my best start probably was my first start, which is kind of a curse in a way for a freshman,” Lynch said. “I thought I had it figured out, and then I kind of got it shoved in my face.”
At Louisville on March 26, Lynch lasted only 1.1 innings and gave up five runs, all earned, after which O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn decided to use him in a different role. Three midweek starts followed for Lynch, and then came the back injury that slowed his progress.
“There were some frustrating times,” Lynch said, “but I think it’s a really good learning experience when you have to go through that.”
The Cavaliers experienced frustration, too, early in the year. But O’Connor’s club closed the regular season by winning five consecutive ACC series, a surge that almost certainly assures Virginia of hosting an NCAA regional at Davenport Field next weekend.
A strong showing in Durham would have bolstered the Cavaliers’ chances of earning a top-eight seed in the NCAA tournament as well, and the losses to Clemson and Wake won’t help on that front. But that’s not O’Connor’s primary concern as the NCAA tourney approaches.
“All that we can do is try to get better as a team,” he said. “That’s what we need to do. That’s what our focus needs to be [Saturday] night. These last two ballgames, we’ve lost one-run games to two really, really good, deserving opponents that are both playing good baseball.”
Against Clemson and Wake, O’Connor said, the `Hoos did not do the things “we’ve been doing for five weeks. It’s pretty simple, and it’s very small things. Those are the things that we have to focus on getting back to doing [Saturday] night, because those are the things that will allow us to win next weekend.”
Virginia, which led 5-1 heading to the bottom of the fourth, gave up a season-high five home runs Friday. Starter Alec Bettinger, a junior right-hander, allowed three of them on a hot, humid day.
“I was just a little fatigued, I think,” Bettinger said, “and I was just not able to make pitches I needed to.”
Wake led 8-5 after six innings and 10-7 after eight, but each time UVA rallied. In a game in which the Cavaliers totaled 13 hits — Wake had 10 — sophomores Pavin Smith and Adam Haseley had three apiece, and sophomore Ernie Clement and juniors Matt Thaiss and Daniel Pinero had two each.
“We showed a lot of fight there at the end,” Bettinger said. “We just couldn’t do enough. I think it shows how this team never counts itself out, and I think that will be some good momentum for [Saturday] night.”
Thaiss extended his hitting streak to 15 games, the longest by a Virginia player since Keith Werman (also 15) in 2012. Pinero homered for the second straight day in Durham. Haseley had two triples Friday, as he had in a March 18 victory over Wake at Davenport Field.
Haseley will start on the mound against the Cardinals, who took two of three from the Cavaliers in Louisville in late March. The 6-1, 190-pound left-hander did not become a weekend starter until early April.
“We’ve come a long way since the [regular-season series with the Cards],” Bettinger said. “They haven’t faced Adam yet, so that will be something different for them.”
At last year’s ACC tournament in Durham, after blanking Georgia Tech 11-0 in a playoff game, Virginia went 0-3 in pool play. The Cavaliers went on to win the College World Series, but they’d prefer to head into this year’s NCAA tournament on a winning note.
“You can’t rest on last year’s accomplishments, for sure,” Bettinger said. “That doesn’t happen every year. You need to go out there and win.”