Batters' prowess keys strong start


In its first four games this season, the No. 25 Virginia baseball team’s offense has been nothing short of unstoppable, and with a three-game homestand with Toledo this weekend, it will look to see just how long it can keep that power surge going.

Virginia (4-0) has had trouble putting up runs early, scoring just five runs in the first three innings of games, but once the offense has gotten started, it has been hard for anyone to stop it. In the final six innings of games, the Cavaliers have put up 42 runs, putting each of their games out of reach by brute force.

“The whole approach is contagious,” senior second baseman Reed Gragnani said. “You feed off each other, and we work so hard together that when one person gets something going everybody wants to pick him up so it’s that ‘next guy’ mentality for us.”

Coach Brian O’Connor knows that this kind of output cannot be sustained throughout an entire season, but he sees it as a sign of good things to come.

“Something like that doesn’t continue,” O’Connor said. “At some point, it’ll be that low run-scoring ball game, but I’ll take it as long as we can get it. I do think that we have the chance to be a really good offensive club.”

The play of outfielders sophomores Derek Fisher and Brandon Downes and freshman Joe McCarthy has been particularly impressive. The trio has formed a potent middle of the lineup for O’Connor, combining for 18 RBIs in the first four games. Fisher has a home run and seven RBIs and Downes is batting an impressive .438 with a home run of his own along with six RBIs.

“You look at our lineup, and you look at Fisher and McCarthy and Downes and [sophomore infielder and pitcher] Nick Howard, when he’s in there — those are some physical guys,” O’Connor said. “There’s a physical presence in that lineup.”

That physicality has clearly come through at the plate for the Cavaliers. Perhaps the most impressive show of power so far this season has come from sophomore third baseman Kenny Towns, who already has three home runs and 10 RBIs on the season.

Towns and the offense have impressed early, but the team’s pitching has more than held its own as well, allowing just three runs in the team’s previous two games. Freshman lefty Brandon Waddell will make his second career start Friday and first in Charlottesville after allowing just one earned run in four and two-thirds innings last week against East Carolina.

“He earned [the starting job] last weekend,” O’Connor said of the young pitcher. “I thought he did a spectacular job in his debut. Hopefully he can go out there and give us a similar type of performance.”

Redshirt senior pitcher Scott Silverstein will follow up Waddell Saturday, but the Sunday starter may be a late decision. Howard, the projected Sunday starter for the season, pitched Tuesday in the team’s 11-2 win against William & Mary after his first start was cancelled due to inclement weather. O’Connor has not yet decided if he will start the sophomore on four days rest or turn to another arm in the Cavalier bullpen.

Against Toledo (1-1), O’Connor will come up against a familiar opponent in Rocket coach Cory Mee. Both Mee and O’Connor served as assistants at Notre Dame under current Louisiana State University coach Paul Mainieri before taking their respective head coaching jobs 10 seasons ago. The common history gives O’Connor some idea of what to expect from the Rockets.

“They’ve had a nice program, they’ve done a good job and I know they’ve got some good veteran players,” O’Connor said. “I know how his kids will play — they’re going to play hard, and they’re going to play fundamentally sound.”

The Rockets went 30-27 last season, compiling a 19-8 record in the Mid-American Conference. They claimed the conference’s West Division regular season title, but were eliminated early from the MAC tournament and missed out on postseason play. Toledo started the 2013 season in Cary, N.C. at the Ron Fraser Classic, losing their first game to LaSalle 8-7 before defeating Delaware 3-1.

This early in the season, with many first-time starters still adjusting to college baseball, the Cavaliers’ focus is squarely on making improvements in their own play.

“We have to get better, we have to concentrate on what we do,” O’Connor said. “If we do that, it’ll be a good weekend.”

The weekend set will begin Friday at 3 p.m.

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