Cavaliers travel to Durham for battle with Blue Devils
Potent relief staff, solid defense boost Virginia’s chances against conference rivals Duke
The Virginia baseball team steps up to the plate tonight against struggling Duke to open a three-game weekend series at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
The Cavaliers (24-13-1, 9-9 ACC) need to overcome junior righthanded pitcher Marcus Stroman, whose 2.05 ERA leads the Blue Devils (14-24, 6-12 ACC). Though Stroman's 6-foot-5, 185-pound frame may make him look comical on the mound, the Duke ace can squat an astounding 490 pounds and leads the nation in total strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings, which means Virginia needs a near-flawless performance to survive him.
"They have a real good guy on Friday nights - Stroman - one of the better pitchers in college baseball," sophomore righthanded pitcher Austin Young said.
Duke's team ERA of 3.60 is the fifth lowest in the league, and Stroman, named the ACC Conference Pitcher of the Week in early March, is the team's pitching machine. He has a career 3.40 ERA - the second-lowest in Duke history - and many consider him a potential top-20 pick in the upcoming MLB Draft.
"We know what he's capable of doing," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "It presents a great opportunity; it presents a great challenge; and we happen to have a guy going on Friday night too who's pretty damn good."
That guy is junior pitcher Branden Kline, whose fiery, steady hand has cemented his status as Virginia's go-to hurler. Just a few weeks after Stroman, Kline was also named ACC Pitcher of the Week after a phenomenal performance against Clemson at the end of March. He has pitched five consecutive quality openings after a rocky start.
The Cavalier relief staff also continues to be one of the team's strongest assets. Relievers such as Young, junior Joel Effertz, senior Justin Thompson and sophomore Artie Lewicki have made solid appearances in recent contests against North Carolina and Richmond.
"Our bullpen has really shown well and been very, very consistent," O'Connor said. "I think it's been a real bright spot for us."
Solid defense, meanwhile, has boosted the pitchers' impact. Virginia maintains the highest fielding percentage in the league at .974.
Offensively, the Cavaliers have seven-of-eight regular starting position players batting .280 and above, and the team boasts a total batting average of .304, which leads the ACC. Junior third baseman Stephen Bruno, in particular, has been tearing it up and brings a 10-game hitting streak to this weekend's games. Against Richmond, Bruno hit 3-for-5 to raise his team-leading average to .351 and scored what turned out to be the game-winning run.
"I'm seeing the ball well," Bruno said. "[I'm] trying to stick to our plan and try to hit the ball hard in every at bat and execute in every situation."
Though the Blue Devils currently dwell in the cellar of the ACC in hitting, they feature five players hitting .300 or better who could pose a threat. Freshman Andy Perez holds the fifth-highest batting average in the league at .361 in ACC games, and Duke is tied for seventh nationally in triples with a total of 13 this year.
The series will be the first for the Cavaliers on the road since April 1 after they finished their nine-game homestand 6-3. Virginia has wobbled in its two previous road ACC clashes, losing three straight to Florida State in mid-March and squandering a potential series win in the ninth inning of a rubber match game at N.C. State three weeks ago. Still, O'Connor believes his players have the mettle to weather the upcoming stretch of ACC series, three of which will be away from the friendly confines of Davenport Field.
"I know our guys are looking forward to showing what they're capable of doing in this league on the road," O'Connor said. "The two weekends we played on the road at Florida State and N.C. State, the end result of those six games has not been great; but I believe our guys will be ready to play this week and show what they're capable of doing."
Virginia's midweek win against Richmond provided a key moral boost heading into this weekend's matchup after being swept by North Carolina last weekend at home.
"We're not happy getting swept, especially at home in front of a great crowd," Bruno said. "So getting this win [over Richmond] was a great confidence booster moving forward."
Even though the Blue Devils' prospects of postseason play are all but vanquished, the Cavaliers expect their lowly conference rivals to come out swinging.
"They play in a great ballpark, they have a great pitcher throwing Friday, scrappy players and they're going to compete just like we are," Bruno said. "As much as we want to beat them, they want to beat us, so they're going to come out with great intensity just like we are so it should be a great weekend"