Baseball team seeks payback against North Carolina
Resurgent Virginia hopes to get even after being swept while ranked No. 1 in 2011
Riding a fifteen-game winning streak at home, the No. 23 Virginia baseball team faces No. 8 North Carolina in a battle for second in the ACC Coastal Division this weekend at Davenport Field.
The Cavaliers (23-10-1, 9-6 ACC) hope to continue their run of success on the home diamond, which has propelled them into the national rankings after starting the season outside the top-25.
"I think our level of play at home speaks to the environment that we have here," coach Brian O'Connor said. "We certainly could not do it without our fans. They come out and support us at a very high rate. Any time you get a chance to bat last and play in your own ball park, it makes a difference."
Improved defense and pitching have also made a key impact. Since being swept by Florida State in a three-game series four weeks ago, the Cavaliers have clamped down when opponents come up to bat. The Cavaliers could not stop the Seminole offense, allowing their Southern foes to score 23 runs during the series. Since then, the starters have found their groove and the bullpen has shut the door on teams looking to launch comebacks. The bullpen has blown only one lead in the last month - against then-No. 9 N.C. State two weeks ago. All of the pitchers have benefitted from a more reliable defense playing behind them.
"When people asked me three weeks ago when we started to make this move to play better baseball, that happened because we started playing really good defense," O'Connor said. "That's always been a trademark for us, and that's going to need to continue for us to succeed."
Junior Branden Kline has been a crucial part of Virginia's pitching staff. He is currently 5-2 on the season with an ERA of 3.19, and has regained his role as the Friday night starter. He was initially touted at the start of the year as the team's ace but struggled with the task. During one stretch in his last game against Wake Forest, however, Kline retired nine straight players, and he struck out eight batters en route to picking up the win. Kline deflects credit for helping the Cavaliers turn their season around and instead points to fellow starting pitcher sophomore Artie Lewicki as the most important difference-maker.
"He's a great leader in the club, he's got tremendous stuff, he knows how to pitch and he's a competitor just like all of us are," Kline said. "We know that if the series is split 1-1, we have a high chance of winning the third game."
The Tar Heels (24-9, 9-6 ACC) are coming off a win Wednesday against UNC Asheville, but were swept in a series for the first time this season in last weekend's matchups against Miami. The Cavaliers will enter this weekend looking to exact revenge on the Tar Heels, after North Carolina won three-of-three against them at the end of the last season when Virginia was ranked No. 1.
The Tar Heels' offense has been superb this season. Sophomore outfielder Parks Jordan racked up a career-high four RBIs Wednesday night and the Tar Heels broke a school record with four sacrifice flies.
"We always look forward to UNC," senior first baseman Jared King said. "That's always been a big series for us every year, especially after having the feeling that we had last year after they took three from us before the end of the season. We'll be ready, but I don't think we're going to put any extra pressure on ourselves."
King is one of a handful of veterans on a Virginia team which has relied on a talented bunch of freshman this season, following the departure of most of last year's core group which carried Virginia to the College World Series.
"That's what happens with a program at this level," O'Connor said. "You come in as a freshman, you contribute when your number is called upon, and you keep working hard and you wait your turn. We've worked hard to develop that kind of program here, and you're able to ease guys into it a little bit and get them some experience. Hopefully, the experience those young position players will have this year will make them special players next season."
One of the 11 freshmen on the roster is infielder Branden Cogswell. Cogswell scored four times in Virginia's 16-4 rout of George Washington Wednesday. In the second game against Wake Forest last weekend, Cogswell ignited the Virginia offense with a double and a triple, while also scoring twice and driving in a pair of runs.
"I think he's got a chance to be the shortstop of the future for us here, but out of necessity, he's played some second base this year, and it's been a good role for him," O'Connor said. "I think he's versatile enough that he can play anywhere on the infield. I'm happy that he's in our uniform. He's a great player, but he's an even more wonderful kid."
Friday's first pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m. Virginia plays at 4 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.