Virginia preps for opener
Despite roster turnover, team seeks to build on last year’s College World Series trip
The Virginia baseball team ended the 2011 season in front of 25,882 screaming fans in Omaha, NE at the College World Series. After the most successful season in program history and 13 innings of thrilling play on college baseball's biggest stage, a stunned Virginia squad exited the field, averting their eyes as the South Carolina bench poured out of the dugout to celebrate a trip to the College World Series finals which had been within the grasp of the Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers loaded two bases in the top of the 12th with one out, but South Carolina turned a double play to wipe out the threat. The Cavaliers loaded the bases in the 13th only to hit into another double play. In the bottom of the inning, an errant throw by then-senior pitcher Cody Winiarski in an attempt to nab the lead runner skipped past third base, allowing the South Carolina's winning run.
Virginia begins its 2012 campaign in South Carolina with a three-game weekend set, starting today with Boston College.
"We're very proud of what we accomplished last year - having the most wins in our program history and finishing in the top four teams in the country is a lot to be proud of, but you still have that taste in your mouth of ending your season with a loss," coach Brian O'Connor said. "So it's been a long time since we've been out there competing, and we're looking forward to getting things started."
Virginia advanced to its second-ever College World Series just two years after the first bid in 2009 on a stunning 9th-inning rally against UC Irvine in the third game of the Charlottesville Super Regional. The team won a team-record 56 games and spent 12 weeks at the top of the national polls in 2011, earning its eighth straight NCAA tournament appearance. The Cavaliers also took home their second ACC championship in three years thanks to superb pitching and defense. Their 2.24 team ERA was the lowest in Division-1 since 1992, and the Cavaliers set a school record with a .978 fielding percentage. At the plate, Virginia led the ACC with a .304 batting average and amassed 471 runs during the season - another school record.
"We got to let last year be last year," senior first baseman Jared King - who added the second hit of that comeback rally - said. "This is a totally different team. We're gonna try to find our own identity and not really focus on the accolades we had in 2011."
The entire roster, especially the pitching staff, will undergo a significant makeover in 2012. Four pitchers who notched a combined 33-5 while pitching more than 70 percent of the team's innings are gone, including star lefty Danny Hultzen, who was drafted second overall by the Seattle Mariners and surpassed former Cavaliers third baseman Ryan Zimmerman as the highest draft pick in team history.
Virginia looks to fill some of those innings by moving first-team All-American closer junior Branden Kline into the starting rotation. Kline, who tied the all-time ACC record with 18 saves last year, takes the hill on opening day today against Boston College. O'Connor also named senior lefty Scott Silverstein, junior righty Whit Mayberry, sophomore lefthander Kyle Crockett and sophomore righthander Artie Lewicki as candidates to step into the starting rotation.
"We had the good fortune last year to have a lot of experience, and guys that did a really good job and those players are now in professional baseball," O'Connor said. "Now it's these other guy's opportunities to shine in our uniform."
On offense, Virginia returns four infielders who started at least 30 games last year in King, junior shortstop Chris Taylor, senior second baseman Keith Werman and junior infielder Reed Gragnani. King hit .321 with 29 RBI and Taylor batted .305 with a team-high 15 stolen bases. The Cavaliers also expect the return of junior third baseman Stephen Bruno, who hit .388 as a freshman in 2010 but was limited to just 25 at bats last year with an injury.
The Cavaliers look for the continued development of outfielders in the form of junior Colin Harrington and speedy sophomore Mitchell Shifflett, as well as freshmen Derek Fisher and Mike Papi. Fisher and Papi are two of 11 new freshmen on Virginia's roster and were selected in the sixth and 30th rounds of the 2011 draft, respectively.
"This fall and this preseason have been a little bit different than it's been the last two years," O'Connor said. "We manage the ball club the same way and our approach is still the same, but you just have to stress the fundamentals so much, and you can't take anything for granted. You're constantly teaching when you have new players."
O'Connor has helped turn the Virginia baseball program into a mainstay among the college baseball elite after inheriting a team which had made just three NCAA appearances in the previous 32 years. Entering his ninth season as head coach, O'Connor has compiled a 372-130-1 record and .741 winning percentage, earning three ACC Coach of the Year awards and the 2009 National Coach of the Year honor while becoming the fastest coach in conference history to reach 350 wins.
The Cavaliers kick off the season against an ACC foe before facing a pair of teams which qualified for the 2011 NCAA tournament in Coastal Carolina and James Madison. The squad faces a trying schedule, including 26 games against ten teams which played in last year's tournament.
"This week leading into our first games, we've absolutely moved from practice preseason mode into game mode," O'Connor said. "When you end the season like we did last year in Omaha and being left on the field against South Carolina like we were, we're excited to get back out there and get things started"