By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For University of Virginia baseball fans, the sight of junior right-hander Connor Jones taking the mound at Davenport Field will be a reassuring one Saturday.
A projected first-round pick in next week’s MLB draft, Jones will start for Virginia (38-20), the No. 1 seed in this NCAA regional, against No. 3 seed East Carolina (35-21-1). The teams, both of which won Friday, are scheduled to meet at 4 p.m. Saturday, with the winner advancing to what could be the final game of this double-elimination regional.
Jones, a junior right-hander from Chesapeake, is 11-1 this season with a 2.29 earned-run average. Not only is he a formidable obstacle for any opponent, his team is coming off a historic performance.
“Certainly we were pretty locked in offensively after the first inning,” head coach Brian O’Connor said Friday afternoon, “throughout the entire lineup.”
In a 17-4 rout of No. 4 seed William & Mary, the Wahoos totaled 20 hits, their most ever in an NCAA tournament game. Only once — in an 18-2 win over Richmond in 1972 — has UVA scored more in the NCAA tourney.
“If there were a weakness, we certainly didn’t find it,” Tribe coach Brian Murphy said of defending NCAA champion Virginia.
In an elimination game, W&M (29-30) meets No. 2 seed Bryant (47-11) at 11 a.m. Saturday.
For UVA and ECU, which will be the home team Saturday, this will not be their first encounter of the season. In late February, the Pirates took two of three games at Davenport Field, winning 8-5 (in 10 innings) and 6-1 before the Cavaliers prevailed 4-2 in the series finale.
Jones started the Feb. 26 series opener against ECU and struck out eight, walked two, surrendered eight hits and allowed four runs in five innings.
Virginia and William & Mary also met during the regular season, the `Hoos winning 16-8 at Davenport Field on March 1.
Moreover, sophomore Ernie Clement (2 for 6, four RBI) had his first home run of the season, as did classmate Jack Gerstenmaier (2 for 3, career-high three RBI). Clement and Haseley each had a triple, and junior Daniel Pinero, sophomore Charlie Cody, Simmons and Haseley had a double apiece.
“Coach O’Connor before the game came up to us and told us to be aggressive,” Gerstenmaier said. “So I think that was everyone’s approach: just go up there, see the ball well, be aggressive and put good swings on it.”
Cody, Gerstenmaier and Simmons batted Nos. 7, 8 and 9, respectively. They helped the Cavaliers apply constant pressure at the plate.
“Jack, Cam, Charlie all had big days,” Haseley said. “I think the whole lineup was swinging the bat well. Collectively we had a good aggressive approach, and we were all swinging at good pitches.”
In a game whose start was moved up two hours, to 11 a.m., because of the weather forecast, junior right-hander Alec Bettinger rewarded his coaches’ decision to hand him the ball first in the regional opener.
“I thought that was a tremendous start by Alec Bettinger,” O’Connor said. “He did a terrific job getting us out there and getting us six innings.”
Bettinger (3-5, 5.43 ERA) struggled in the top of the first, giving up two hits and a run, but had few lapses thereafter and earned the win. Over six innings, he scattered six hits, struck out four, walked one and allowed two runs.
“I’ve been in plenty of tough spots, and I’ve had to learn from those,” said Bettinger, who began the season as the Cavaliers’ closer. “I think I’ve built on that skill. In the first inning it was tough and they were hitting me around a little bit, and I had just to keep throwing strikes and not get discouraged.”
It helped, Bettinger added, “knowing I had a great offense behind me and they could pick me up. It’s a lot easier knowing you can give up a run and you’re in good shape.”
Virginia is in the NCAA tournament for the 13th time in O’Connor’s 13 seasons as head coach. The Cavaliers have advanced to the College World Series four times during his tenure, so it’s not unprecedented for them to be dangerous at the plate.
Still, O’Connor said Friday, “I think this is one of our better lineups. Maybe it might not have quite the star power that some of the other ones did, although [Matt] Thaiss and Smith and Haseley and Clement, those guys are pretty good players.”
Thaiss, a junior, leads the team in batting average (.382), home runs (10) and RBI (57) despite catching virtually every game Virginia has played this season. With a fourth-inning single Friday, Thaiss extended his hitting streak to 17 games.
Overall, the Cavaliers are batting .305 this season. Of their starters, five are hitting better than .300: Thaiss, Clement (.348), Pinero (.337), sophomore Pavin Smith (.329) and Haseley (.303).
Virginia can also hit for power. In 2014, when the `Hoos finished as NCAA runners-up, they totaled 33 home runs in 69 games. They hit 35 in 68 games last season. So far this year, Virginia has 39 homers in 58 games.
“I think the balance throughout the lineup is one of the better [ones] that we’ve had here,” O’Connor said. “They’re consistent with what their approach is. They’re aggressive, and … there are very, very few strikeouts.”
The `Hoos struck out only once Friday against William & Mary. UVA batters finished the regular season with 283 strikeouts, the fewest in the ACC, a powerful conference that sent 10 teams to the NCAA tournament.
“It’s a really, really low number,” O’Connor said, “and that’s the sign of a team, 1, that’s aggressive, and, 2, that can make adjustments with two strikes and can get up there and battle.”
In last year’s NCAA tournament, Gerstenmaier appeared twice and Cody once. Simmons, who’s from Poyersford, Pa., was in high school at this time last year. So none has much experience on this stage, but they were unfazed Friday.
In part, O’Connor said, that’s because the Cavaliers’ ACC schedule helps prepare his players for the pressure of the NCAA tournament.
Also, he said, “certainly there’s a level of expectation in this program for performing in the clutch and winning and doing it when it matters. And players like Jack Gerstenmaier and Charlie Cody and Cam Simmons, they’ve got great examples in the guys hitting in front of them. Hopefully the culture that has been built in our program over the years impacts those guys and gets them ready to play.”