By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – He followed a superb freshman season with a stellar summer in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, where he was named an all-star for his play with the Baltimore Redbirds.
Back at the University of Virginia, Alex Tappen had a solid fall, and there was every reason to believe that, in his second college season, he’d build on his first. But 2019 has generally been a struggle for Tappen, a 6-2, 210-pound outfielder from Lower Gwynedd, Pa., about 25 miles north of Philadelphia.
As a freshman, he started all 54 games for the Cavaliers in right field and hit .262, with 13 triples, four home runs and 36 RBI. Coming out of UVA’s series with ACC rival Notre Dame early this month, he was hitting .180, with one double, one homer and 15 RBI.
“He started off slow, and his pitch selection wasn’t as good,” said associate head coach Kevin McMullan, who’s also Virginia’s hitting coach.
The good news, for Tappen and for the Cavaliers, is that he’s emerging from his prolonged slump. In his past four games, Tappen has gone 7 for 14, with four doubles, to raise his batting average to .223.
“I think it’s really important that Alex Tappen gets going and plays up to his capability,” head coach Brian O’Connor said. “He struggled early and needed to make some adjustments with his swing, and that sometimes can take some time. So we’ve shuffled him in and out [of the lineup].”
Tappen was 2 for 4, with two doubles, Tuesday night in UVA’s 6-3 win over Radford at Disharoon Park. He also made a diving catch in right field.
“This kid’s got a lot of pride, and he had a great year for us last year hitting in the middle of the order,” O’Connor said. “He’s started to make the adjustments and he’s showing progress, and I think he can be somebody in the back part of this year that can hopefully really spark us. I think that’s the way he’s trending, and I hope that it continues to progress.”
Tappen said: “You’re not going to get a hit every time, but the fact that I’m finding more and more barrels feels really good, and it does wonders for your confidence. You just feel a lot better in the box ,and you feel like you can control more when you’re in there.”
The changes he’s made to his swing, Tappen said, are “nothing major. I’ve just been working with the coaches and going back and looking at some film from last year and making little tweaks here and there.”
A productive Tappen would be a boon for the Wahoos, who with a month left in the regular season are heading into a pivotal series. Virginia (22-16 overall, 8-10) is scheduled to meet Florida State (22-13, 10-8) at Disharoon Park at 6 p.m. Thursday, 6 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. Saturday.
Ty Jerome, who was instrumental in UVA’s march to the NCAA men’s basketball title, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch Saturday. The series will air live on ACC Network Extra and can be heard on WINA 1070 AM/98.9 FM.
The Seminoles are coming off a series sweep of Clemson in Tallahassee, Fla. UVA hosted ACC rival Miami last weekend and dropped all three games. The Cavaliers rebounded Tuesday to defeat Radford.
“I was proud of our guys,” O’Connor said. “I thought our approach, after a very tough and disappointing weekend, in all aspects of the game was very, very good. Hopefully we can have this positive momentum rolling into a big series with Florida State.”
UVA is in its 16th year under O’Connor. In each of his first 14 seasons, the Cavaliers advanced to the NCAA tournament, and they won the College World Series in 2015. The Hoos missed the NCAA tourney last season, though, and their résumé needs work if they’re going to get back in the field this year.
His players are “smart,” O’Connor said. “They understand what the big picture is. They understand where our positioning is right now … They’ve been around enough to know what it takes.
“That said, they also understand that if we don’t take care of the game in front of us, then it gets pretty daunting, if you think of too big of a picture.”
Tappen said: “All those guys that were on the team last year know what that feeling’s like, not being able to make the postseason. We definitely don’t want that feeling again, and I think the newcomers also understand what happened last year, and [they’re] going to do whatever they can to help the team get to where we want to go and get to where our goal is and has been for the whole year.”
At Wissahickon High School, Tappen played soccer and basketball in addition to baseball. He’d never been through an extended slump until this season, but he’s remained positive.
“It’s all stuff that you can take and learn from,” Tappen said Tuesday night, “and that’s what I’m trying to do, as much as possible, and do as much as I can to help the team, and when the time comes and I get my opportunities, to execute.”
Tappen has played in 36 games this season, with 27 starts.
“Confidence is a tough thing in this game,” O’Connor said. “You’re playing all the time, the at-bats are difficult, you’re going to fail. So you talk to them about the process, the everyday process of their preparation and giving themselves a chance to be successful, and not getting caught up in the results. And that’s a very, very difficult thing to do in this game, and that’s why sometimes players downward spiral at times and have a tough time getting out of it, because they get so result-conscious.
“So you continue to preach to them that it’s an everyday process and to stick with it, and if you stick with the process it’ll win out for you over time.”
The Hoos hope that time has come for Tappen.
“He’s been much more consistent in his approach, and I think he’s really worked at being fundamentally sound from his swing standpoint,” McMullan said. “I think the work is paying dividends for him at the plate. He’s getting good at the right time, and we’re going to need him down the stretch here.”