By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– They went into it with a 1-2 record. They came out at 14-4.
For the Virginia Cavaliers, the longest home stand in Brian O’Connor’s 17 seasons as their coach––15 games––went well. It included a 2-1 series win over ACC rival NC State, which was unbeaten when it arrived at Disharoon Park; a 3-1 series win over Bucknell; a 3-0 series sweep of Dartmouth; and a 2-0 series sweep of UMass Lowell.
The Wahoos also recorded victories over VMI, William & Mary, and Richmond.
“We’ve been playing really good baseball,” senior catcher Logan Michaels said Wednesday afternoon after UVA edged UMass Lowell 4-3 in a game that started at 11 a.m. “I think we’re really start to find our identity and who we are as a team. It’s nice to see the younger guys really maturing quick for us.”
Not every Cavalier will shine in every game, O’Connor has reminded his players, “but other guys will step up,” Michaels said. “It’s really nice to see … Obviously, we’ve got a long season ahead of us, but so far, so good.”
Virginia is scheduled to play its next two weekend series on the road: first at Pitt (Friday through Sunday) and then at No. 8 Miami (March 20-22).
“We did what wanted to do here at home,” O’Connor said, “and that’s win the big share of those games and play well at home, and now we have to prove that we can go out on the road in this league and be successful. So we’ve got some real challenges in front of us. I like what we’re doing. I like what we’re doing in pretty much every facet of the game, and we’ve got to continue to improve and take advantage of our opportunities.”
The Hoos haven’t played away from the Dish since Feb. 16, when they dropped the finale of a three-game series with Oklahoma at the Wahoos Classic in Pensacola, Fla. After blanking the Sooners 6-0 in the season opener for both teams, Virginia lost to them 7-2 and 5-1.
Oklahoma, now ranked No. 13 nationally, has an elite pitching staff, and UVA came out of that series batting .205. The Cavaliers have since raised their batting average to .309.
Of the eight players who have appeared in more than 11 games for UVA, seven are hitting .300 or better: freshman Chris Newell (.407), sophomore Zack Gelof (.349), freshman Max Cotier (.338), sophomore Nic Kent (.328), junior Brendan Rivoli (.320), Michaels (.316) and junior Marc Lebreux (.303).
“I like the balance of our offensive attack,” O’Connor said.
In 2019, when the Cavaliers finished 32-24 and missed the NCAA tournament, they hit only 28 home runs. Virginia already has 22 homers this year, led by Gelof (five), Newell (four), junior Christian Hlinka (four) and sophomore Jimmy Sullivan (four).
“We can hit the ball out of the ball park,” O’Connor said, “and then we have some guys that are threats on the bases and compete with two strikes. I like our offensive approach, and hopefully we can continue to swing the bats well.”
The home stand ended with two games against UMass Lowell, an America East Conference team that was coming off a series against No. 19 LSU in Baton Rouge, La. In the Sunday finale, the River Hawks led the Tigers 4-3 heading into the eighth inning. LSU rallied to complete the series sweep, but O’Connor was wary of UMass Lowell.
Those concerns seemed misplaced on Tuesday, when the Hoos totaled 19 hits and routed the River Hawks 24-5. But O’Connor said afterward that he expected a much tougher test Wednesday from UMass Lowell (4-11).
“I knew their kids would bounce back and play a good ball game,” O’Connor said, and he told his players as much.
“Coach Oak had brought it to our attention that usually after a big win like yesterday you gotta wipe it pretty quickly and get ready for the next day,” said UVA closer Stephen Schoch said Wednesday.
Schoch is a graduate transfer from UMBC, which like UMass Lowell competes in the America East Conference. “So I knew the type of ball club [the River Hawks] were and how tough they are and how you really have to beat them to beat them,” Schoch said.
Nothing came easily for the Cavaliers on the first Field Trip Day at Disharoon Park. In front of a crowd that included more than 900 students and teachers from area elementary and middle schools, Virginia managed only six hits and never led by more than a run.
“Certainly it was a completely different offensive day for us than it was the day before,” O’Connor said.
In the top of the eighth, UMass Lowell tied the game, and Virginia was fortunate to minimize the damage. Schoch had replaced junior Andrew Abbott on the mound with none out, the bases loaded, and the score 3-3.
The first batter Schoch faced, Ciaran Devenney, hit a line drive that, had it reached the outfield, probably would have scored two runs. But third baseman Zack Gelof snared the ball and then dove to tag the bag, doubling up Vinnie Martin, who had started toward home. Schoch then recorded the third out on a fly ball to center field.
“It was pretty rad of him to do that,” Schoch said with a smile when asked about Gelof’s defensive gem.
“Huge play,” O’Connor said. “That was the ball game right there. Certainly we could have fallen behind, and it might have been a different outcome.”
In the bottom of the eighth, Michaels singled home Newell from third to make it 4-3. There was more drama in the top of the ninth, when the River Hawks again loaded the bases, but the game ended when Kent, the Cavaliers’ shortstop, fielded a grounder and flipped the ball to Cotier at second for the final out.
“Down the road, you’ll look back at this game,” O’Connor said, “and it’s going to be in the win column, and that’s what matters.”
Michaels said: “We found a win to win. We’re going to have these games over the course of this year. Obviously, not all of them are going to be 24-5.”
The combination of an early start, a tense game, and hundreds of boisterous youngsters in the stands made this “one of the stranger days that I’ve had in this stadium, really because typically a baseball crowd is not like that,” O’Connor said, smiling.
“It just seemed like a non-stop buzzing in my ear, although it’s great. I’m glad all the kids came out, and the next time we get a chance to do it, I’d love it if there’s 4,000 kids here from our community. I think it’s a neat opportunity for them to come out and enjoy a baseball game and get a little away-from-school time.”
Newell said he “thought it was pretty cool, honestly, to have all those kids there. It made it fun for us, having all those kids cheering us on. It’s pretty cool knowing that they look up to us in a good way.”