By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On opening day last season, he was the starting shortstop for the University of Virginia baseball team, no small feat for a freshman. Cayman Richardson soon relinquished the job to junior Ernie Clement, however, and ended up playing in only 19 games for a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament.
Even so, Richardson said, “I definitely learned a lot from Ernie. He was a big mentor for me, even though I wasn’t playing every day, just [in terms of] offensive approach, defensive approach, how to stay in the game if your offense is going good and your defense isn’t, or if your defense is going good and your offense isn’t.
“Just being able to separate your defense and offense, I think that’s the biggest thing that I learned from him.”
The positive words he heard from Clement, Richardson recalled, helped him keep “my head up throughout the season, just so I wasn’t lost. Even though I wasn’t playing, it really kept me in the game.”
Clement is now playing professionally, and the 6-2, 175-pound Richardson, a graduate of Hanover High School in Mechanicsville, is bidding again for a prominent role on head coach Brian O’Connor‘s club. Of the Cavaliers’ eight games this season, Richardson has started six.
His first five starts were at shortstop. On Tuesday, O’Connor rested Justin Novak, and Richardson started at third base against VMI at Davenport Field.
In a new role, Richardson impressed. He had a career-high three hits (in five at-bats) and scored three runs to help the No. 18 Wahoos edge the Keydets 10-9. In the field, he made no errors.
“He’s versatile,” said O’Connor, who added that Richardson can also play second base. “Cayman looked pretty good over there [at third]. He looked pretty comfortable.”
In the fall, when freshmen Tanner Morris and Devin Ortiz spent most of their time at shortstop, Richardson worked extensively at third base. That’s a position he played as a boy before moving to shortstop, “so I’m kind of going back to my roots a little bit,” said Richardson, who helped Hanover win three state titles during his four years on the varsity.
“But I’m pretty comfortable over there, and I felt comfortable there in the fall, so wherever Coach needs me to play, I’ll play there.”
He hit .231 (9 for 39) as a freshman, and he was only 2 for 19 this season heading into the Cavaliers’ rematch with VMI, which had won 9-4 at Davenport Field on Feb. 20. But Richardson’s batting average, O’Connor said, didn’t tell the whole story.
“His quality of contact, his ability to put the ball in play and compete with two strikes, is pretty good,” O’Connor said. “These numbers are in such a small [sample size]. You look at a stat sheet, it doesn’t talk about how many times a guy hit a ball right on the screws and hit right at somebody. But that comes around, and I think it came around for him a little bit tonight.”
Richardson, who’s now hitting .208, has struck out only once in 24 at-bats. Of UVA’s other regulars, only catcher Caleb Knight does not have at least two strikeouts.
“I think putting the ball in play is a big part of our offensive approach, and I’ve been finding quite a few barrels,” Richardson said. “I’m just hitting it right at people.”
Morris (2 for 4), who played shortstop, and junior Nate Eikhoff (2 for 4) also had multiple hits for Virginia (5-3). Knight, a senior, had only one hit, but it was a three-run homer that stretched the Cavaliers’ lead to 8-1 in the second inning.
In the third, the ‘Hoos added to two more runs to go up 10-1, and it appeared their third straight victory would come easily. The Keydets (5-3) had other ideas.
In the fourth, they rallied for three runs against left-hander Andrew Abbott, a freshman making his first start for UVA. In the fifth, VMI scored two more, off Ortiz, who recorded only one out before giving way to yet another Virginia freshman, Kyle Whitten.
The Keydets scored three runs off Whitten in the seventh, making it 10-9, and so the Cavaliers turned to their most experienced pitcher, senior left-hander Bennett Sousa in the eighth.
In his previous appearance, Friday night at Davenport Field, Sousa had surrendered three runs in the ninth inning as Eastern Kentucky rallied for a 7-6 victory.
“I was ready to pitch [again] Saturday,” Sousa said. “I wanted to get back out there as soon as possible, and I’m glad today was the day.”
Against VMI, Sousa pitched two scoreless innings to earn his second save of the season. He struck out two, walked one, and allowed no hits. He hit one batter.
To end the game, Sousa struck out Matt Dunlevy, the reigning Southern Conference player of the week, who was hitting .429 on the season.
“He showed poise, and that’s why he’s in that role,” O’Connor, a former closer at Creighton, said of Sousa. “I pitched in that role in college, and you have to have an ability to bounce back not only at-bat to at-bat, but game to game. You’ve got to have a short memory as a closer.”
Against EKU, Sousa “bounced some balls in the dirt that got away from our catcher, and he just didn’t make some two-strike pitches that I know he’s capable of,” O’Connor said. “He showed tonight why it’s valuable to have him in that role.”
The Cavaliers are back at Davenport Field on Wednesday. At 3 p.m., they’ll face another state rival, William & Mary (1-7). Sophomore right-hander Bobby Nicholson will make his first start of the season for UVA.
After holding off the Keydets on Tuesday night, Virginia was perhaps as relieved as it was happy, but “I told the team after the game that this is a learning process,” O’Connor said. “Every team is new, every team is different, and this team is still learning how to win. And that’ll be an ongoing process. So, certainly however a win happens, we’ll take it. It wasn’t pretty.”
Abbott pitched well early in the game, but the ‘Hoos “couldn’t close innings,” O’Connor said.
“We gave up seven runs today with two outs. When we played VMI last Tuesday, we gave up eight runs with two outs. That can sometimes be a common theme with inexperienced pitching, but that’s an area we’ve got to get better at. We’ve got to finish those innings when you’ve got a chance … to make some big pitches and close the inning and get your team back in there, and we haven’t done that on two consecutive Tuesdays.
“But I was proud of our guys. I was proud of Bennett Sousa. I thought he came back and really pitched well for us after last Friday night.”