Consistent baseball continue dominance under O'Connor
Inexperienced 2013 team opens season 39-8, earns No. 8 national ranking
If there were one word to describe coach Brian O’Connor’s tenure at the helm of the Virginia baseball team, it would be “consistent.” In just 10 seasons in Charlottesville, O’Connor has lifted the Cavaliers from irrelevancy to national prominence, and his success has been almost unparalleled by any other program around the country.
The 2013 campaign has been no different for Cavaliers. In what some predicted would be an off year for Virginia, O’Connor has once again created a juggernaut in Charlottesville. After a decade of work with the Cavaliers, his 2013 squad sits right alongside any of his strongest teams from the past, appearing just as primed as any to make a run in the postseason.
“You learn the second you step in here that the expectations are through the roof,” sophomore outfielder Derek Fisher said. “You learn pretty quickly that the way we go about things is that we have the mentality that we can beat anybody.”
Fueled by production from Fisher, a bumper crop of other talented sophomores, and a few key seniors, the Cavaliers entered the start of the season mid-stride. Virginia won its first 14 games and put up eye-popping numbers, despite a few small hiccups along the way. At the halfway point of the season, the Cavaliers had lost just two games — one to Maryland and one to Clemson — and sat at 25-2 with even their youngest players looking like seasoned veterans.
“They don’t look like young players anymore,” O’Connor said after a March 24 win against NC State. “They’re veterans, they’ve been in a lot of big ballgames in their time.”
The Class of 2015 has served as the backbone for the team’s production all season. The outfield houses three of the team’s four RBI leaders – Brandon Downes, Mike Papi and Fisher – who have driven in 46, 38 and 39 runs, respectively, and also lead the team in home runs with seven, five and six. Of the seven sophomores who play regularly, all have more than 20 RBIs on the season, and five have a batting average better than .310.
“They’ve all done great,” redshirt senior Jared King said. “For guys who never really got that many starts under the belt last year, they’ve really stepped right in, and we haven’t missed a beat.”
King is one of a trio of seniors that has provided veteran support for the Cavaliers. The first baseman has seen consistent playing time in his career for Virginia, but for fellow seniors Reed Gragnani and Scott Silverstein, the road to success has been bumpy. Both have struggled with injuries for the majority of their careers, but both are putting everything together in their final year. Gragnani is batting .276 with three home runs and 40 RBIs, which is good for second on the team.
Silverstein has been equally impressive on the mound. Sporting a 3.32 ERA and a 7-1 record — his lone loss coming in last weekend’s stumble at Virginia Tech — the redshirt senior has been the centerpiece of the Virginia starting rotation.
“I couldn’t be happier for [the] guy,” King said. “The best thing I see in him is that he’s up there competing. For the longest time … you could just tell he was thinking about his arm action and his velocity, but now he’s just out there competing and it shows with the confidence he has on the mound.”
The second half of the season has been slightly rougher for the Cavaliers, as they dropped two series to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, both on the road. Despite the stumbles, they hit the final exams period with a 39-8 record.
This is the fourth time in the last five seasons that the Cavaliers have entered final exams with single digit losses, and their loss total is the second lowest at this point in the season to the 2011 squad that advanced to the semifinals of the College World Series. The 2013 Cavaliers have been reminiscent of great teams of the past — the 2009 and 2011 teams particularly — but the players want to make their own names for themselves.
“We knew in the fall that we would have a great core of guys,” King said. “We were extremely confident. I’m sure it’s going to draw a lot of comparisons … but it’s a completely different squad.”
As the season hits its home stretch, the 2013 Cavaliers will look to build on the success of their predecessors in the postseason. Seven games remain in the regular season, with the ACC and NCAA tournaments looming ahead. The players are confident that more success is still to come.
“I definitely think we’re a good team,” Silverstein said. “I definitely thought we were a good team coming into the season … I’m hoping we can grind it out the rest of the way.”