By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On June 14, the Washington Nationals selected University of Virginia pitcher Bennett Sousa in the 34th round of the Major League Baseball draft.
With a year of college eligibility remaining, Sousa had a decision to make: Should he stay or should he go? He talked to his parents, to UVA head coach Brian O’Connor, and to UVA pitching coach Karl Kuhn, among others. Sousa also sought the counsel of Tyler Wilson, who faced a similar decision after his junior season with the Cavaliers.
In 2010, Cincinnati picked Wilson, a right-handed pitcher, in the 35th round. He opted to return to UVA for his senior season, during which he boosted his stock significantly.
In 2011, Baltimore drafted Wilson in the 10th round. He signed with the Orioles and, after rising through the minor leagues, has pitched in 42 games in the majors.
“I figured, what better advice than from that guy?” Sousa said on a splendid fall afternoon at Davenport Field. “He really told me the pros and cons.”
The cons are twofold, Sousa said. “One is that you lose [negotiating] leverage, and two, there’s always that possibility that you get injured or you don’t get drafted again. But the pros are you get your degree, and you get the possibility of getting drafted higher than before. To me, the pros way outweighed the cons.”
And so Sousa is back at the University, working toward completion of a bachelor’s degree in history and preparing for what he hopes will be a memorable 2018 season.
A 6-3, 210-pound left-hander from North Palm Beach, Florida, Sousa said he wants “to make sure that when I do take that next step and play professional baseball, that I stick in the minor leagues and hopefully one day in the major leagues, instead of making it two or three years and then being kind of done.”
Sousa is coming off a season in which he posted a 3-0 record and 4.09 earned-run average. He pitched in a team-high 24 games, all out of the bullpen, and helped the Cavaliers advance to the NCAA tournament for the 14th straight season.
He had a smaller role as a underclassman, with seven appearances as a freshman and 16 as a sophomore. His ERA was 5.14 in 2015, and it rose to 7.92 in 2016.
“My first two years, they definitely did not go anywhere near how I thought they would,” Sousa said. “Being highly recruited out of high school, I was expected to come in here and do a lot of good things, and it just didn’t happen for me my first two years. So it was nice to see my junior year be kind of a representation of what it should have been like my first two years.
“That’s kind of the reason why I wanted to come back for my senior year as well: to show the fans and the coaches and myself that the guy that pitched last year is the guy that should have been here the first two years, and it’s going to continue into my senior year and hopefully even get better.”
With players in Sousa’s position, O’Connor discusses their options but makes clear, he said, that it’s “got to be their decision. I don’t want them to feel like I’m influencing them, because the challenge is that it’s tied to money.
“There are so many unpredictables in this game. The Major League Baseball draft is driven by leverage, and certainly you have more leverage coming out after that junior year.
“I just tell them that it’s got to be their decision, that they have to feel like them coming back and playing another year of college baseball and graduating from UVA, and ask them if they feel like they can come back and continue to improve.”
The peaks and valleys Sousa has experienced as a Cavalier are not unprecedented, O’Connor noted. “Everybody comes into a college baseball program with high hopes and the desire to make an impact right away, and the reality is, it doesn’t always work out that way. And so although he might have been disappointed that he didn’t contribute as much in the beginning, I was really, really proud of the steps that he took forward last season.
“My hope is that the experience and confidence that he gained last year is going to serve him well to make even a bigger jump this season.”
The recruiting class that enrolled at UVA in the summer of 2014 included, in addition to Sousa, such players as Pavin Smith, Adam Haseley, Tommy Doyle and Ernie Clement. All four of them turned pro over the summer after being drafted before the end of the fourth round.
“I kind of joke around that I have no more friends on the team,” Sousa said.
The reality, of course, is different. He gets along well with his younger teammates. Moroever, Doyle and Clement came back to Charlottesville “and stayed with me for a whole week [last month], and Pavin’s living with us,” Sousa said.
He smiled. “They don’t want to leave, either. I still see them around, but it’s not like being on the field playing with them anymore.”
Under O’Connor, the Wahoos have made four appearances in the College World Series, finishing as runners-up in 2014 and winning the program’s first NCAA title in 2015. It’s not uncommon for the `Hoos to lose elite players after their junior seasons, and it happened again this year.
“I’ll say this,” O’Connor said, “the best teams that we’ve had here have had some integral players return for their senior year, when maybe we didn’t anticipate that that would happen. And it made the difference in that year’s team.
“Certainly Bennett’s leadership, his calmness, his poise can be helpful and influential on this team and make a difference.”
How the Cavaliers will use Sousa in the spring is still to be determined.
“Personally, I just want to pitch, and that’s how I feel about it,” Sousa said. “Do I think I could help as a starter? Yes. Do I think I could help as a closer? Yes. I would love closing. I think that’s one of the best jobs in baseball: to pitch one inning out of the bullpen and close the game out. But that’s one of those questions that you’ll have to ask in January when it gets closer to the season.”
Sousa primarily has worked as a starter this fall, O’Connor said, “because we wanted to extend him out and see how he’d do with that, and because he didn’t pitch [in a summer league] we wanted to try to get him as many innings as possible this fall. That said, we’ll sit down in the winter and the preseason to determine [Sousa’s role].”
Sousa has pitched twice in the Orange and Blue World Series. He didn’t allow a run in either game, and batters hit .130 against him.
The signature event of the Cavaliers’ fall schedule concludes this weekend at Davenport Field. Game 6 is set for Friday at 6 p.m., and Game 7 will start Sunday at 1 p.m.
The MLB season concluded late Wednesday night in Los Angeles, where the Astros defeated the Dodgers in Game 7 to capture their first World Series title. Two former UVA standouts played on the sport’s biggest stage: Derek Fisher for Houston and Chris Taylor for L.A.
“It just shows you how far [the Cavaliers’] program has come,” Sousa said.
Another sign: the $18 million renovation and expansion of Davenport Field. Construction began in June, not long after Virginia’s 2017 season ended. The project is scheduled to be completed before the 2018 home opener, Feb. 20 against VMI.
That he’ll be able to pitch in the renovated stadium, Sousa said, is another reason he’s happy he chose to return to UVA.
“I think the freshman pitchers that are here have a chance to be a pretty special group and an impactful group right away as well,” O’Connor said.
“Losing those three guys, they’re hard to replace, and we’ve been trying to find that for the past two years,” Sousa said. “And I tell you what: This [current] staff is very good. Throws a lot of strikes. A lot of guys throw the ball hard as well, which is good.”
Admission is free for the Orange and Blue World Series, and free parking is available in the University Hall lot. Because of the construction, fans are asked to enter the complex through the main gate for Davenport Field and Klöckner Stadium. Fans can then enter Davenport Field along the third-base line.