May 15, 2018

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — At 9:56 p.m. Monday, in the bottom of the second inning, No. 31 strode to the plate, drawing warm applause from the late-night crowd at Disharoon Park.

“Welcome back, Jake McCarthy,” Channing Poole, the voice of University of Virginia baseball, said on the radio broadcast.

An athletically gifted junior from Scranton, Pa., the 6-2, 200-pound McCarthy hadn’t played since March 6, when he injured his left wrist in UVA’s 12-1 victory over Davidson.

Without him, the Cavaliers went 17-17. With him, Virginia is 10-4 after defeating Georgia Tech in a storm-delayed game that started at 9:31 p.m. Monday and ended at 12:49 a.m. Tuesday.

“He’s very, very talented,” UVA head coach Brian O’Connor said. “He can affect the game with his legs every time he steps on the field.”

McCarthy, who during the winter was named to several preseason All-America teams, went 2 for 3 with an RBI to help the Wahoos clinch a key ACC series win with an 8-4 victory over the Yellow Jackets.

“It was just good to be back,” said McCarthy, who started in center field and batted sixth in the lineup. “Obviously you don’t want to be sitting on the bench for two months. It got pretty frustrating, so to be back, it was almost a sense of relief.

“I was not really that nervous, because I was just happy to be back. Obviously, we won and I had a few hits, so it made the night even better. But competing with the guys is what I’m about, and that’s what I enjoyed the most.”

In his first at-bat, McCarthy hit a sacrifice fly that pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 2-0. He singled in the third inning and again in the fifth. He laid down a textbook sacrifice bunt in the seventh and then flied out to left in the eight.

“Certainly it was nice having Jake McCarthy back in there,” O’Connor said. “I think he’ll get better as the days go on. It’s always tough when you come out after being off for 10 weeks and you’re facing an ACC-caliber pitching staff. “

McCarthy, whose brother, Joe, preceded him in the Cavaliers’ program, has had a hard-luck college career. As a freshman in 2016, he played in six games and hit .368 before suffering a season-ending toe injury.

In 2017, the only season he’s been able to play in every game, the left-handed McCarthy hit .338 to help the `Hoos reach the NCAA tournament for the 14th consecutive year. He started fast this season — through 13 games he was hitting .314 and led the ACC in stolen bases — only to get derailed again, this time by a wrist injury.

It was no coincidence that the Cavaliers struggled in his absence.

“Certainly the younger players look up to a guy like that, because he’s been there before and he’s had a lot of success,” O’Connor said.

“He’s a guy that can change things in a lineup. I decided to hit him sixth just to not all of a sudden put him right at the top of the lineup, and I think [freshman shortstop] Tanner Morris has done a nice job there, too. We’ll see how that develops.

Who knows? Maybe he’ll hit in the middle of the order somewhere. But I think as he continues to progress, he’ll be better and better and continue to impact this team.”

The Cavaliers (27-21 overall, 11-16 ACC) are back at Disharoon Park on Tuesday night. At 6 o’clock, Virginia hosts Richmond (28-21) in a non-conference game.

Sophomore right-hander Bobby Nicholson (2-1, 1.85 earned-run average) will start for the `Hoos, who close the regular season with a three-game series against ACC rival Wake Forest (22-29, 11-16), beginning Thursday in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Virginia is on the verge of clinching a spot in the ACC tournament, which starts next weekend in Durham, N.C.

McCarthy, whose batting average climbed to .333, is expected to be back in the starting lineup Tuesday night against UR, and he’s eager for the work. “I just want to get some momentum going into the ACC tournament and Wake,” he said.

At the time of McCarthy’s injury in March, UVA’s medical staff hoped he might be able to return in six weeks. But the calendar flipped from April to May and McCarthy remained a spectator during games, though his workload steadily increased in practice.

“I was throwing, I was bunting, even lifting,” McCarthy said. “Swinging took a little longer, but now we’re there, and now I feel great physically.”

O’Connor said: “It was pretty much a slow progression, and it came down to how would he feel on days after he really took aggressive batting practice on the field … We weren’t going to take a chance prior to this at all, because he wasn’t responding the day after he’d hit the way that you’d want somebody to, to put him in the lineup.

“When he had multiple days that he could swing freely and aggressively and not have problems the next day, we knew it was time for him to get in there.”

Joe McCarthy‘s final college season was 2015, when the Cavaliers won the NCAA title in Omaha, Neb. He’s now playing for the Durham Bulls, Tampa Bay’s Triple-A team.

His advice to his kid brother?

“He told me to hit the ball up the middle,” Jake told reporters early Tuesday with a smile. “He said, `Don’t try to pull it,’ so I’ve been working on that the past couple of days.”

McCarthy wasn’t the Cavaliers’ only standout against Georgia Tech (28-24, 12-15). Freshman right-fielder Alex Tappen went 3 for 4 with a single, a double and a two-run home run. Junior first baseman Nate Eikhoff contributed three hits, and freshman designated hitter Brendan Rivoli had two.

On the mound, UVA starter Daniel Lynch went seven innings and recorded a career-high 13 strikeouts. The junior left-hander improved his record to 4-4 and lowered his ERA to 4.08.

“I thought Lynch was really, really special,” O’Connor said.

ESPNU televised the game, which was scheduled to start at 7 p.m. The powerful thunderstorms that rolled through Central Virginia hurt attendance at the Dish, but about two dozen pro scouts showed up to evaluate Lynch, among others.

“On national television, he comes out and I think he has his best outing of the year for us against a really good offensive lineup,” O’Connor said.

“Quite frankly, I think that’s as sharp as his stuff has been all year long, and he picked a really special night in front of a lot of important people to do it.”

For a team looking to extend its streak of NCAA tournament appearances to 15, every game is crucial, and UVA’s players know that, Lynch acknowledged.

“It’s not something the coaches talk about,” he said, “but we have social media and we see that type of stuff. But you’ve got to try to not let it affect you that much and just play loose. Because in the end, you can’t really control what the other teams are doing, and you’ve just got to play your best baseball.”

Asked about Lynch’s performance, O’Connor said, “That’s as competitive as I’ve seen him, as fiery as I’ve seen him. His will to do the job for his team is as good as I’ve seen.”

Lynch has always had a strong competitive spirit, O’Connor said. “It’s just sometimes it can roll out of control for a pitcher, and they don’t know maybe how to handle their emotions, and they can’t slow the game down at critical times and make big pitches. And I think he did that tonight.”

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