By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – Rankings are fluid in college baseball, and Virginia’s RPI continues to improve. In their 2019 finale at Disharoon Park, the Cavaliers rallied to defeat VCU 8-7 on Tuesday night, after which they moved from No. 48 to No. 44 in the RPI.
The victory was UVA’s eighth in its past 11 games, and no longer does a trip to the NCAA tournament seem far-fetched for head coach Brian O’Connor’s club. Still, more work remains for the Wahoos if they are to reach the NCAAs for the 15th time in O’Connor’s 16 seasons.
“It’s just a matter of us getting hot,” O’Connor said Tuesday night. “That’s it. You want to be hot at the end of the year. Nobody remembers if you start the season out 20-0 if you’re not hot at the end of the year. They always remember what you do at the end of the year, and we’ve got a great opportunity in front of us.”
Virginia (30-21 overall, 12-15 ACC) closes the regular season with a three-game series against Virginia Tech (25-25, 8-19) in Blacksburg. The teams are scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Thursday, 3 p.m. Friday, and 1 p.m. Saturday. The Cavaliers have won three straight series against the Hokies, who are in their second season under former Maryland head coach John Szefc.
UVA has clinched a berth in the ACC tournament, which starts Tuesday in Durham, N.C. The Hokies, who have dropped seven of their past eight games, are one of three teams battling for the final spot in the tournament.
“I’m expecting their best,” O’Connor said. “They’re going to play with an edge to them, so we’ve got to be ready to be a little bit better on the road.”
Little has come easily for the Hoos this year. They went 0-3 in the season-opening MLB4 Collegiate tournament in Arizona, and four times they’ve won the opener of an ACC series – against Duke, Georgia Tech, NC State and North Carolina – only to lose the next two games.
“Most years that we come into the final weekend [of the regular season], we’ve got ourselves a little bit of a cushion to kind of line up our pitching the way we want it for the conference tournament,” O”Connor said. “We’re not in that position right now. We’ve got to just try to win the game in front of us. We need to go down [to Blacksburg] and play really good baseball, and that’s going to start with [junior right-hander] Noah Murdock getting us off to a good start on Thursday. He needs to pitch up to his capability. If he does, we’ll have a chance to win.”
Against VCU (36-17), which leads the Atlantic 10, Virginia used six pitchers, starting with junior Paul Kosanovich. He was followed by sophomore Devin Ortiz, freshman Zach Messinger, sophomore Andrew Abbott, sophomore Kyle Whitten and, finally, fifth-year senior Riley Wilson.
Ortiz, a right-hander from Irvington, N.J., struck out three in 2.2 scoreless innings. That marked the fifth straight appearance in which he hasn’t allowed an earned run.
“We’ve been put into a situation since about midseason [in which] he needed to be used on a regular basis, and he’s taken advantage of that opportunity,” O’Connor said.
“He’s stepped up. He’s clearly got really good stuff. He’s a very good athlete. He’s an infielder that is really athletic out there, and he’s got a good arm and a good slider. He’s just really emerged. He’s understood that we’ve needed him to rise up and pitch for us and pitch well.”
In the ninth inning, Wilson retired the first two batters he faced, starting with cleanup hitter Liam Hibbits, who had smashed a two-run home run in the first inning. After walking Andrew Puglielli, the left-handed Wilson struck out Steven Carpenter to earn the first save of his UVA career.
“That was crazy,” said Wilson, whose brother, Tyler, preceded him as a pitcher in the Cavaliers’ program. “When I opened up the [bullpen] gate to come out there, I kind of just took a second and was like, ‘This is potentially it. This could be the last game that I play on this field.’
“Everything that’s gone on the past five years kind of ran through my head, the injuries, all that kind of stuff, and it just kind of came full circle. I almost felt at peace out there. I wasn’t nervous. I was like, ‘Well, this is the last go-round, so let’s have fun with it and let these guys behind me play a little bit and try and throw some strikes.’ I’m glad that it worked out and I can come out with a win.”
After home-plate umpire Tony Carilli signaled a called third strike on Carpenter, Wilson’s teammates sprinted out of the dugout to the mound to congratulate him.
“How about that?” O’Connor said. “He’s been in our uniform for five years, and this was his last chance to pitch here at this ball park, and he comes in and saves a one-run game. I’m just proud of him and proud of our whole effort, and hopefully we can continue to play this good baseball as we go down to Tech.”
The Cavaliers were coming off a weekend in which they took two of three games from ACC rival Louisville, which is No. 7 in the latest RPI, and a loss to VCU would have negated some of the momentum from that series win. The Hoos fell behind early Tuesday night but found a way to run their winning streak in non-conference games to 11.
Virginia rallied for four runs in the sixth and then extended its lead to 7-3 in the seventh. The Rams tied the game with four runs in the eighth, but in the bottom half of the inning UVA’s No. 9 hitter, junior Cayman Richardson, singled in classmate Logan Michaels with what turned out to be the winning run.
In his first three at-bats Tuesday night, Richardson struck out once and grounded out twice.
“He’s got a competitive fire to him,” O’Connor said. “He’s disappointed when he doesn’t put up a quality at-bat for his team. I saw that out of him after his third at-bat … In this game it comes back around to you, and you always get another opportunity, and fortunately he did there in the eighth inning, and he took advantage of it.”
With senior Chesdin Harrington behind the plate, UVA president Jim Ryan delivered an impressive ceremonial first pitch Tuesday night. Once the game started, Michaels took over at catcher for the Cavaliers.
Michaels, who’s from DeForest, Wis., transferred to UVA last year from Madison College. Against VCU, he made several characteristically heady plays, and for the season he’s hitting .319.
“Logan Michaels has made a very significant impact,” O’Connor said. “I’m really glad that he decided to come here out of junior college, and he’s really done a nice job for us. He’s done a really good job behind the plate. Offensively, he battles. He puts the ball in play with two strikes, and he’s rewarded for that.
“He’s doing a very, very nice job, and he’s very steady. He gives himself a chance to have a competitive at-bat every time up there. He’s not going to hit the ball out of the ball park. It’s not flashy, but it’s tough and it’s gritty. When I think of a Wisconsin baseball player, that’s it right there.”
As postseason approaches, projections for the NCAA tourney abound. But that’s not a topic the Cavaliers’ coaches discuss with their players, O’Connor said. “They can read about what our situation is, and they know. They’re aware of what it takes to play in the NCAA tournament. They know what we need to do. So we just don’t address it.”
Virginia’s margin for error remains thin, but the players “have been pretty loose for a couple weeks, and I think that we’ve been playing some really good baseball as a result,” O’Connor said. “We’re just trying to put ’em in the best position every day to try to win that game in front of us. That’s what we did [against VCU], and hopefully that can continue.”
Over the past month, senior outfield Cameron Simmons said, the Cavaliers have had “a little bit more of a sense of urgency, because we know there’s not much wiggle room, and everyone in that locker room wants to play in the postseason. Missing out on it last year stunk, so we’re doing everything we can to make that push.
“We’re playing some good baseball at the right time, and we’re getting hot. So hopefully we keep it going and get a chance.”