Young roster eager to make successful debut
Enthusiastic freshmen approach season opener against East Carolina
Looking up and down Brian O’Connor’s roster for this spring, one thing jumps out immediately — this Cavaliers squad is young. But as O’Connor enters his 10th season as coach of the Virginia baseball team, he is hoping this new breed of Cavaliers will continue the success he has already built in Charlottesville.
“It’s obviously a good problem to have, because we have guys moving on to the next level,” redshirt senior first baseman Jared King said. “It’s an opportunity for those new guys to really step in and fill spots. It’s provided a lot of good competition, so I think it’s benefited everyone, not really knowing who is going to be where.”
Only nine of the No. 25 Cavaliers’ 34 players are juniors or seniors. The team’s youth should not be confused with inexperience, however, as the team features seven position players who started at least 25 games last season.
Leading the way is 2012 Freshman All-American Derek Fisher, who batted .288 in 56 games last year, mostly in left field. Fisher displayed uncanny power for a freshman last season, hitting seven home runs and driving in 50 runs. He is joined by fellow sophomores catcher Nate Irving — who hit .279 last year with a .415 on-base percentage in 53 games — and outfielder Mike Papi, who hit .283 before missing the second half of last season with a back injury.
The veteran core of King, redshirt junior outfielder Colin Harrington and senior utility man Reed Gragnani will anchor the young lineup. King started all 59 games at first base for Virginia last year and hit .263 with 4 home runs, 12 doubles and 44 RBIs.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes since I’ve been here,” King said. “I just turned 23, so for most of the first-year guys, we wouldn’t even have been in high school together. It’s interesting, but the quality of guys we’re getting now is supreme.”
The team’s youth is perhaps most evident on the pitching staff, which faces the most uncertainty entering the season. The Cavaliers lost two key starting pitchers to the pros in Branden Kline and Shane Halley, who went 7-3 and 9-2 last year, respectively. They will also be without junior Artie Lewicki and sophomore Whit Mayberry, thanks to season-ending injuries last year which will also keep them out of the mix for 2013.
Those losses put pressure on junior Kyle Crockett and redshirt senior Scott Silverstein, who have a combined 17 college starts, and on a strong freshman class of pitchers, including left-handers Nathan Kirby and Brandon Waddell. A pitching staff in flux presents a problem for the Virginia catchers, but Irving is confident in the team’s preparation.
“Something that I take a lot of pride in is being there for pitchers, and trying to help them along as fast as possible from behind the plate,” Irving said. “We’ve been doing some great work in the pen and on the mound, and we’re really excited to get going.”
To O’Connor, the 2013 campaign marks a decade of coaching in Charlottesville, a period that has seen the Cavaliers rise to national prominence. A three-time ACC Coach of the Year and two-time National Coach of the Year, O’Connor has turned Virginia into a fixture of college baseball. Virginia’s 195 wins in the last four seasons are the second most in Division I.
The Cavaliers are coming off of a 2012 season which saw them go 39-19-1 overall and 18-12 in the ACC. They made their ninth consecutive postseason appearance but lost at home in the regional round of the NCAA tournament, dropping games to Appalachian State and Oklahoma in the double-elimination series.
Virginia will be put to the test in its opening weekend matchup against East Carolina in Greenville, N.C. The Pirates put together a strong 2012 season, going 36-24-1 overall and qualifying for the NCAA tournament before being eliminated in the Chapel Hill Regional. For the opening game, O’Connor is turning to Waddell, in what will be his first collegiate start.
“He’s shown me a lot,” O’Connor said of the freshman. “He’s conditioned. He’s ready to throw 90 pitches. Provided he’s still giving us an opportunity to win that ballgame, he’ll be out there.”
Waddell will be followed by Silverstein Saturday and sophomore Nick Howard Sunday, with Crockett coming out of the bullpen in a long relief and closing role. O’Connor has said that he will not hesitate to turn to the team’s newer pitchers if necessary, with freshmen Josh Sborz and Cameron Tekker primed to make relief appearances.
“It’s a calculated experiment,” O’Connor said. “We like to believe that we have a pretty good idea of what guys are capable of doing, but the reality is, practice is practice. Once you cross the white lines and wins and losses matter, things change.”
East Carolina will certainly not be a pushover opening matchup for the Cavaliers, and the players relish the opportunity to put their months of preparation on display against a quality opponent.
“We had a great test with BC, Coastal Carolina and JMU [in a season-opening tournament] last year, and I think we really came together as a group after that,” Irving said. “We’re just going to have to go out and play our game and play without fear, and trust the process. If we do that, the results will take care of themselves.”