By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – After playing three games in three days at the inaugural MLB4 Collegiate Tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz., the last one ending Sunday around 8:15 p.m. Eastern, the UVA baseball team embarked on a grueling trip home.
First there was a red-eye flight to Reagan National Airport in Arlington, followed by a bus ride back to Charlottesville. The Cavaliers didn’t return to Disharoon Park until around 11 a.m. Monday. And so head coach Brian O’Connor wondered about the wisdom of moving UVA’s home opener from Wednesday to Tuesday to avoid an approaching storm.
There was no guarantee his players would have the energy to compete at a high level against VMI. Still, O’Connor was confident in their ability to function well on an irregular sleep schedule – “I was more concerned about our coaches,” he said – and the game was moved up 24 hours.
“VMI’s coach wanted to play, and we wanted to play,” O’Connor said. “This is what we do this time of year. You gotta move the games to do whatever you have to do to get ’em in.”
Coming off a disappointing weekend in Arizona, where they lost to No. 2 Vanderbilt, No. 17 TCU and No. 24 Cal State Fullerton, the Cavaliers broke through Tuesday afternoon. They scored four runs in the first inning, added five more in the fifth and blanked VMI 9-0 on a chilly day at Disharoon Park.
“We wanted to get the game in,” senior first baseman Nate Eikhoff said. “We wanted to get a win and get back on the field and bounce back.”
O’Connor: “It was really important. I told our team the last few days that we just gotta go out and play baseball. We have a lot of guys that don’t have a lot of experience on the mound, and we’ve got some first-year kids in some [important] roles. You’ve got [senior Cameron] Simmons that hadn’t played in a year and things like that.
“We gotta go out and play. We gotta go out and learn how to win and go out there and compete. And the more we can get out there, I think the better and better we’ll get, and the more innings we can get those guys on the mound, [the more] we’ll continue to improve.”
In the bottom of the first, with the bases loaded and the score 1-0, Eikhoff blooped a fly ball down the left-field line. VMI’s Cody Warner got a glove on the ball, but he couldn’t make the diving catch. Three runs came across for the Wahoos.
“In the book, it looks like a double off the wall with three RBIs,” Eikhoff said, smiling, “so I’ll take that any day of the week.”
Sophomore left-fielder Brendan Rivoli drove in Virginia’s first run with a sacrifice fly and its seventh run with a double. Sophomore shortstop Tanner Morris had a two-run double, and sophomore right-fielder Alex Tappen had an RBI double.
The Cavaliers didn’t overwhelm VMI (2-3) offensively – they were 6 for 27 at the plate — but pitchers Evan Sperling, Zach Messinger, Blake Bales and Chesdin Harrington combined on a two-hitter.
Sperling, a junior right-hander, struck out nine in his four innings, but he also walked four and hit a batter.
“That’s an area that he can get better in, and we can get better in as a group,” O’Connor said, “but I was proud of him that he buckled down and made some big pitches.”
This is O’Connor’s 16th season at UVA. In each of the first 14, the ‘Hoos advanced to the NCAA tournament. In four of those seasons, they reached the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., and in 2015 they won the program’s first NCAA title.
In 2018, however, the injury-ravaged Cavaliers’ season ended in the ACC tournament. They finished with a 29-25 record, the first time under O’Connor they’ve won fewer than 38 games in a season.
All of which made the MLB4 tournament an especially valuable experience for his players, O’Connor believes. Only one of his current players, graduate student Riley Wilson, was on the 2015 team, and the Cavaliers did not advance to an NCAA super regional in 2016 or ’17.
“Certainly this weekend we were disappointed to come home without a win,” O’Connor said, “but I told the team that the reason that I chose to put them in that kind of tournament was, these are the kind of teams that you play at the end of the year to try to get to Omaha, and they’re the teams that you play when you get to Omaha … They’ve gotta see it and they’ve gotta learn, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Virginia lost 15-9 to Vanderbilt and 9-4 to TCU and never led in either game. On Sunday, however, the Cavaliers took a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth, only to see Cal State Fullerton rally for three runs against closer Andrew Abbott, their most trusted pitcher.
“That loss is not on him whatsoever,” Rivoli said, “We had plenty of opportunities to put the nail in the coffin [earlier in the game] and we didn’t execute.”
For a program with UVA’s tradition, the “weekend was tough,” Eikhoff said. “It’s hard to go out there and lose three games, but for us we’ve got to take it as a learning opportunity.
“We played in a tournament this weekend that’s better than any [NCAA] regional we could possibly dream of being in, and it’s practically a pool of the College World Series.”
Rivoli said: “It was a learning experience, and being able to come back and play [VMI], we were able to use those positives and use those negatives, and apply them to this game today. That’s what we did, and good things happened.”
O’Connor said he didn’t sleep after the Fullerton game until Monday afternoon, when he took about a two-hour nap in his office at Disharoon Park.
“Number one, I personally don’t sleep that well on flights,” he said. “But number two, you’re thinking about that game. You’re in a position to win it, and we didn’t do it. And so you take that pretty hard. But we learn and we move on.”
His players’ resilience in Arizona impressed him, O’Connor said. “There’s a lot of fight in our guys. They’ve got a lot of pride. There’s a lot of energy. If you sit close to our dugout, you can tell that our guys are really into it, and they’re into it for each other and they want to play good baseball.”
Virginia (1-3) is scheduled to host Villanova (0-3) in a three-game series this weekend, but the weather forecast isn’t promising, especially on Saturday. O’Connor said the teams will weigh all their options, including the possibility of a doubleheader on Friday or Sunday.
“We’re going to look at it to see what the results of the next 24 hours are, and we’ll do whatever we have to do,” he said.