Feb. 21, 2018

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — On a spectacular day more typical of May than of February, only one thing marred a historic occasion for the University of Virginia baseball program: the outcome of the game Tuesday night.

“I’ll definitely have more fun when we win a game in here,” UVA junior center-fielder Jake McCarthy said, “so I’m looking forward to that.”

Before a crowd of 3,709, the largest ever to watch a home opener at Davenport Field, No. 15 Virginia lost 9-4 to VMI in a game that lasted nearly four hours. With temperatures in the 70s, fans turned out in force to see a stadium that’s been transformed since the end of last season as part of an $18.76 million expansion.

“There’s a lot of people that have worked really, really hard to make this happen — not only the men and women that have worked on this stadium for the last eight months, but a lot of people in this community,” said Brian O’Connor, who’s in his 15th season as the Wahoos’ head coach.

On opening night at Davenport Field, some fans sat in the expanded left-field bleachers, others in the new field-level club section along the right-field line. Many more watched the game from the new chairback seats on each side of the stadium.

“This place is beautiful,” O’Connor said. “It really is. I think it’s now one of the special places in college baseball. There’s places that are bigger. There’s places that seat twice as many people as we do, but this is perfect for what we need at UVA and in Charlottesville. I’m really proud of it.”

The ‘Hoos (2-2) returned home late Sunday night after a weekend in Orlando, Fla., where they won two of three games in a tournament hosted by Central Florida. Construction crews worked nearly around the clock to get the stadium ready for the home opener, and their efforts enhanced the experience of the fans who flocked to the opener.

UVA’s players marveled, too, at the scene around them during the opener of a 10-game homestand.

“It’s like a dream come true to come out and play in this stadium every day,” senior catcher Caleb Knight said. “We love it.”

McCarthy said: “There’s always been a buzz here. We have really good fans, but being in the outfield, just looking at [the stands], it just seems like there’s so many more people here. That’s awesome, and hopefully it attracts more and more fans as the season goes on and as we start playing well.”

The atmosphere didn’t faze the Keydets (2-3). They opened the season Friday with a road win over then-No. 19 South Carolina, before a crowd of 7,384, and they struck early Tuesday night.

After a 35-minute half-inning, VMI led 6-0 before the Cavaliers had even come to the plate. Three walks by freshman Griff McGarry in his first college start hurt the Wahoos, as did an error by McCarthy. McGarry didn’t make it through the first inning, and UVA was unable to overcome its early deficit.

“Certainly you’d like to win your home opener,” O’Connor said, “but tonight we didn’t deserve to win.”

Virginia used six pitchers against VMI, including three freshmen, and among them they walked 10 batters.

“The game was really identified by not throwing strikes,” O’Connor said. “It’s a pretty straightforward, simple game. When you have nine or 10 walks, it’s very, very difficult to win a college baseball game.”

Freshman right-hander Kyle Whitten issued three of those walks, but he emerged from his 2.1 innings of relief without allowing a run.

“When you have a young pitcher and it’s early in the season and they’re getting their first couple of opportunities,” O’Connor said, “you just want to see them go out there and compete and handle adversity. Kyle walked a couple of guys, but he made some big, clutch pitches with the bases loaded and no outs and did some really good things, and those are great learning experiences. You find out what a young person is made of by how they handle those situations.”

At the plate, the ‘Hoos totaled 10 hits. Senior left-fielder Charlie Cody went 2 for 3, and Knight was 3 for 4 with two RBI.

For the season, Knight is hitting .357, with a home run and four RBI. He’s noticeably more confident at the plate than at the end of last season, when he went 0 for 12 in three games at the NCAA regional in Fort Worth, Texas.

“You hate for it to happen that way,” Knight said, “but it was really good to have an offseason and to have that, I guess, lingering in your mind. I didn’t want to start off the season like that and didn’t want that to happen this year.

“It was a big goal for me, to come out this year ready to go and ready at the plate and be the best that I can be.”

Under O’Connor, the Cavaliers are 641-241-2, with 14 trips to the NCAA tournament and four appearances in the College World Series. UVA was NCAA runner-up in 2014 and won the program’s first national title in 2015.

With the expansion of 5,500-seat Davenport Field, a new chapter is O’Connor’s tenure at Virginia has begun.

“I think it’ll have a huge impact,” he said. “I think it has an impact in this community, this baseball program and this stadium, and the opportunity our fans have to come to games is important in this community. Certainly it’s going to affect recruiting, when you have a place like this and you have young people come here and you’ve had a successful, winning program. This just kind of puts the cherry on top of the sundae.”

Pending approval from UVA’s board of visitors early next month, the stadium will have a new name: Davenport Field at Disharoon Park. The name will honor Les Disharoon and his late wife, Ann, longtime supporters of the baseball program.

The Cavaliers’ homestand continues this weekend, when they take on Eastern Kentucky (0-4) in a three-game series at Davenport Field. VMI returns to Charlottesville for another game Tuesday at 3 p.m.

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