By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He came into the weekend hitting .167 (3 for 18) and had appeared in only 11 games for the University of Virginia baseball team.
Brendan Rivoli came out of the weekend as perhaps the most improbable hero of UVA’s series victory over Virginia Tech.
In three games at Disharoon Park, the 6-0, 195-pound freshman went 5 for 11, with a single, two doubles, a triple and a home run, to help Virginia secure a hard-earned point in the Commonwealth Clash competition between the state’s two ACC schools.
“It feels good to have that personal success, but the team success feels a lot better,” Rivoli said Sunday evening after the Cavaliers rallied for two runs in the eighth inning and two more in the ninth to stun the Hokies 6-5.
With bad weather predicted for Saturday, UVA (18-14 overall, 6-9 ACC) and Tech (13-17, 6-9) played a doubleheader Friday. In the opener, Rivoli went 2 for 5 with an RBI as Virginia rolled to a 9-0 victory. In the second game, which the Hokies won 5-4, he went 2 for 4 with an RBI and hit his first home run as a Cavalier.
Rivoli, who’s from Douglassville, Pennsylvania, started at designated hitter and later played catcher in Game 1. He was the Wahoos’ DH in Game 2.
In Game 3, he watched from the dugout until the seventh inning, when he pinch-hit for sophomore Jalen Harrison. Rivoli grounded out in his first at-bat, stranding runners at first and third, but he redeemed himself in the ninth.
With one out and senior Charlie Cody on first, Rivoli took two pitches — both balls — from Tech reliever Graham Seitz. That prompted a pitching change by the Hokies, who turned to Joey Sullivan.
“I definitely feel like it works to my advantage,” Rivoli said. “He’s coming out of the bullpen, [has to face a] new batter, [and] he has to throw a strike pretty much, it’s a 2-0 count. I was just sitting on something hard, and I got it.”
Rivoli drilled Sullivan’s first pitch down the right-field line for a triple that scored Cody to make it 5-5. That brought up junior catcher Cameron Comer, who was 3 for 3 on the day. The Hokies shifted one of their outfielders to the infield, but that didn’t faze Comer. He singled up the middle, and Rivoli raced home with the winning run.
“How about that? It was pretty crazy,” said Comer, who came into the game hitting .194 and left hitting .242. “I was just glad to put a barrel on it.”
And so ended the longest nine-inning game in UVA history: a marathon that lasted four hours and 32 minutes.
“It felt like a long afternoon, but I don’t care if the game would have taken eight hours,” Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor said. “To win the game and win the series is what’s important.”
This is O’Connor’s 15th season at UVA, where he’s compiled a 657-253-2 record. During his tenure, the `Hoos have made 14 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament, with four trips to the College World Series and one NCAA title. (Virginia was NCAA runner-up in 2014.)
This season, though, has been unlike other in the O’Connor era at Virginia. The Cavaliers, ravaged by injuries, entered the weekend tied for last place in the ACC’s Coastal Division, and they’ll need a second-half surge to extend their streak of NCAA tournament appearances. All of which made Sunday’s comeback that much more satisfying for the `Hoos.
“That’s a key series win for us against our rival,” said O’Connor, who told his players after the game Sunday to savor the accomplishment.
“The thing is, everybody around here has been so used to winning at such a high rate, and right now at the midway point in league play, that hasn’t happened for us. It hasn’t come easy for us like maybe it has in some of the previous years. And so that’s why I think it’s so important that they enjoy this victory and celebrate it.”
Freshman right-fielder Alex Tappen‘s first career home run gave Virginia a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the third, but the Hokies scored the game’s next five runs: three in the fourth, one in the sixth and one in the seventh.
On an afternoon when the Cavaliers left 12 runners on base, their rally started in the eighth. Comer led off with a single, and pinch-hitter Jack Weiller, another junior, followed with a double. Freshman shortstop Tanner Morris drove both runners home with a single, and suddenly the Cavaliers found themselves down by only a single run.
“I’m just really, really proud of our guys,” O’Connor said. “Things weren’t going our way, but they didn’t hang their heads. They hung in there, and we kept the game close enough to give us a chance.”
Morris said: “I think it’s a confidence-booster for us moving forward, that we know that we can get these wins in big situations and have hitters that come up in big situations.”
Of the Cavaliers’ 13 hits, nine came from three players: Comer (4 for 4), Morris (3 for 5) and Tappen (2 for 4).
“We’ve been searching for that, some guys to step up,” said O’Connor, whose team is in the midst of a 10-game homestand.
“It’s about rising up in key moments and getting a clutch hit or a clutch RBI, whatever it might be. Maybe that’s a little spark that we needed … We’ve been some searching for some heroes, really, that wanted to step up and win the game, and fortunately we had that happen today.”
Rivoli, who raised his batting average to .276, said he had no idea he’d play such a pivotal role in this series.
“I had an opportunity, and I just tried going out there and seizing it,” he said. “That’s what [O’Connor] always talks about: When you get that opportunity, take advantage of it.”
At Daniel Boone High School, Rivoli was a four-year starter. The adjustment to college baseball is “definitely humbling,” Rivoli said, “but you come in here and you know this team’s loaded with talent, and you’re going to have to work hard to earn a spot on the team and especially earn a spot in the lineup.
“Hard work definitely pays off, and you just have to keep doing that in order to stay in the lineup. It’s a great competitive atmosphere.”
Heading into the series, O’Connor said, he decided he would start Rivoli at DH in at least the opener. Rivoli earned a second straight start with his Game 1 performance, and O’Connor didn’t hesitate to use him as a pinch-hitter Sunday.
“We’re in a situation where you have to reward those guys when they deliver,” O’Connor said.
With Caleb Knight sidelined indefinitely with an injury and Drew Blakely out for the year after having Tommy John surgery, the Cavaliers are perilously thin at catcher. Rivoli is an option there, but Comer has taken over as Virginia’s every-day starter behind the plate.
After appearing in only 12 of UVA’s first 20 games this season, Comer has played in 11 of the past 12.
“This is the first time he’s played a lot in his career, so he’s learning,” O’Connor said. “I know the guys have confidence in him, and he’s getting a great opportunity.”
Even when he wasn’t in the lineup, Comer said, he stayed engaged at practice and during games. He prided himself on “coming to the field ready to play every day, even though maybe I wasn’t expecting to play, but still being ready to play if my number was called and learning and doing those kind of things,” Comer said. “I think has made [the transition to full-time starter] a little easier.”
Virginia hosts Radford (12-19) at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Then comes a three-game series with ACC rival North Carolina (21-11, 10-5) at Disharoon Park. The `Hoos are scheduled to meet the Tar Heels at 6 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.
“We’re going to remain positive and we’re going to continue to work,” O’Connor said Sunday night, “and hopefully this is something that can catapult us forward a little bit.”