No. 5 baseball tops James Madison, 16-8
Downes drives in three runs, scores four as Cavaliers power past Dukes
Since Brian O’Connor became head coach at Virginia in 2003, the phrase “in-state rival” has become an oxymoron. Commonwealth foes have been fodder for the Cavaliers the past nine seasons, providing just enough competition to keep the Cavaliers fresh for more competitive weekend series. Despite an early scare against hard-hitting James Madison Wednesday, No. 5 Virginia rallied for a 16-8 win to improve to 88-13-1 against in-state foes under O’Connor.
“We just go out against other teams from Virginia and we basically just want to show that we’re the best in the state,” sophomore outfielder Brandon Downes said.
With a weekend series against traditional rival Virginia Tech looming, the Cavaliers (37-6, 16-5 ACC) generated little suspense in dispatching of James Madison (18-22, 8-12 CAA) Wednesday night. After Radford became the first in-state opponent to beat Virginia since the Hokies earned a 10-8 extra-inning victory March 9, 2012 — a winning streak that had spanned 11 games — the Cavaliers have restored order. Virginia rallied to beat Old Dominion 10-9 last Wednesday, earned a 6-2 win against Richmond Tuesday and added an even more lopsided victory Wednesday.
The Cavaliers reached a season-high scoring total on 16 hits, notched at least four runs in three different innings and had six different players register multi-hit games. Nobody did more damage than Downes, who finished 3-for-4 with three RBIs, four runs and a towering home run that jumpstarted a five-run eighth inning for Virginia. He also finished a double shy of the cycle.
“Brandon’s done a really nice job in that four-hole,” O’Connor said. “It’s not an easy spot to hit in, certainly it’s a lot of pressure on him and you know he’s done some really great things … He’s an aggressive hitter and he has a lot of confidence in himself and that’s somebody that you want in that middle of the lineup.”
Junior closer Kyle Crockett continued his dominance, pitching two quick quiet innings while striking out three to record another save. He was called upon to protect an 11-8 lead in the top of the eighth, and then returned for the final inning despite the lead ballooning to eight. Crockett lowered his ERA to .51 on the year and raised his strikeout total to 45 in 35 innings.
“Kyle’s done the job all year for us,” O’Connor said. “He’s been as consistent as we’ve ever had here as a closer and as dominant as we’ve ever had.”
Crockett was one of the few bright spots on the mound for Virginia. Freshman starter Trey Oest struggled again, lasting just 2.2 innings before being replaced by freshman lefty Nathan Kirby, who surrendered a go-ahead three-run home run to Dukes designated hitter Conner Brown that briefly put James Madison ahead 6-5. Although the Dukes would score just twice more in the final six innings, the Cavaliers have now allowed 28 runs in their past four midweek games after surrendering just nine runs in their first eight midweek games.
The subpar pitching performance would be a moot point for Virginia, however. The Cavaliers jumped on James Madison freshman starter Michael Church, scoring five runs in the first and knocking out the Dukes’ starter before the end of the inning. Sophomore shortstop Branden Cogswell smoked a double to left field on the very first pitch of the game, and senior first baseman Jared King and sophomore outfielder Mike Papi followed with a pair of base hits.
In an inning filled with hard liners and deep flies, it was a defensive miscue by the Dukes that did the most damage. Sophomore third baseman Nick Howard lined a ball to the warning track in left field, and the ball bounced off the glove of the Dukes’ offensive star Chad Carroll. The ball trickled away, clearing the bases and giving the Cavaliers a 5-0 first inning lead.
The early hole may have been disappointing for the visiting Dukes, but it should not have been surprising. James Madison entered Wednesday’s contest with an abysmal 6.15 team ERA, and without a single pitcher with an ERA below four, compared to eight regulars on the Virginia pitching staff under that mark. But the Dukes also rank third in the Colonial Athletic Conference with a .318 team batting average and have now scored eight or more runs in four straight games.
James Madison sophomore reliever Luke Drayer settled things down temporarily for the Dukes after the Cavaliers’ five-run first, retiring eight of the first nine batters he faced as the team’s offense mounted its rally. In the bottom of the fourth, the Cavaliers solved Drayer’s slow pitches and registered another crooked inning to regain control.
After a walk by Cogswell, King and Papi singled to tie the score at 6-6. Downes then lashed the first pitch he saw for a two-run triple and came around to score himself on an RBI groundout to give Virginia a 9-6 lead it would not relinquish.
“That’s what a good team does,” O’Connor said. “There are times that our pitching and defense picks up our offense when maybe we’re facing a tough pitcher so it’s a sign of a good club that we can win in different ways.”
Virginia will begin its series against the Hokies (25-17, 9-12 ACC) Friday in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech ranks next to last in the ACC in ERA, but has one of the most experienced and talented lineups in the conference, batting .288 as a team.
“They’re a good team, they’re a good hitting team,” Crockett said. “We’re not gonna look past them.”