No. 1 Cavs enter baseball season with high expectations
Roster highlighted by four preseason All-Americans, most of any team nationwide
When Virginia baseball coach Brian O’Connor pitched for Creighton in the early 90s, his mound duties included both starting and relieving. The right-hander, who kept his sandlot days going after college as a minor leaguer in the Phillies’ farm system, won 20 games and notched seven saves in his four years in OmahaO’Connor became familiar with both sides of the pitching coin — working from the first inning onward some days and tossing the final frames during others — but looking back, his true passion was for shutting the door.
“I loved closing the most, because I loved coming to the ballpark every day knowing that I could impact whether our team won or lost that game,” O’Connor said.
Though O’Connor relished finishing off games as a Bluejay, he knows the Virginia baseball team’s season is only beginning. Virginia, a deep and veteran ball club coming off a 50-12 season which ended with an NCAA Super Regional sweep at the hands of Mississippi State, holds the country’s No. 1 preseason ranking and is No. 6 in the Coaches’ Poll. The Cavaliers, not normally the target of much national attention, will have to put in consistent hard work to live up to the high expectations on them.
“You know, the past two years that I’ve been here, it’s been completely different,” junior outfielder Derek Fisher said. “We’ve come into it being a team that had to kind of prove ourselves. We haven’t really gotten much love outside, which was fine, and quite frankly I think it was pretty good for us. And now this year, going into it we’re kind of expected to do a lot … [We have] to go into it with a kind of chip on our shoulder and be able to play and actually prove ourselves because obviously the polls are nice, but you’ve got to go do it.”
Though outside perception of Virginia is more favorable than in years past, much is the same this season both at Davenport Field and in the Cavaliers’ clubhouse. Virginia returns eight everyday starters, two of three regulars in the starting rotation and 22 players overall. The Cavaliers continue to hold fast to a mental approach, which goes beyond the names on a lineup card and works to make outside perception of the team secondhand.
“We look really to our inside expectations of our team and the expectations that we have day in and day out,” sophomore left-hander Brandon Waddell said. “You know, they kind of remain the same from last year and this year, and the way we go about our business didn’t change. We know what we’re capable of, and we just kind of stick to that plan.”
Virginia’s 55-game regular season begins Friday at the Hughes Bros. Challenge in Wilmington, N.C. and concludes with a three-game series at Wake Forest in May. In between, the Cavaliers will likely have both ups and downs in a schedule which features 10 ACC teams.
Waddell, who was Virginia’s Friday-night starter as a freshman and will likely be the Cavaliers’ ace this year, put on 15 to 20 pounds in the offseason in an effort to better handle the grind of the college season.
Fellow sophomore southpaw Nathan Kirby, expected to be part of the starting rotation, looks much improved after a struggling performance last season. Junior right-hander Nick Howard, a two-way standout and First Team Perfect Game Preseason All-American, also returns, after going 6-4 in 12 starts last year while holding down third base for 37 games and shortstop for 12. This year, Howard and redshirt-senior Whit Mayberry are being considered for team closer.
Whichever player earns the late-innings job will be hard-pressed to match the performance of now-graduated Kyle Crockett, who saved five consecutive Virginia victories last season and ended his career with the second-best ERA in program history. O’Connor called Crockett the Cavaliers’ best closer of the past decade.
Despite losing Crockett, Virginia remains stocked with returning stars and promising first-year players, including Connor Jones, a right-hander picked by the San Diego Padres in the 21st round of the MLB Draft who instead chose to play for the Cavaliers. Junior Mike Papi, who O’Connor said will likely start the year at first base, comes off a monster season in which he hit .381, the highest average in the ACC, and batted .412 in conference play. Papi was named a first-team All-American by Baseball America in 2013, and O’Connor said he is more equipped than ever to be a middle-of-the-order force.
“When I look at Mike, or really any of these players, I look at ‘What is their growth and maturity?’” O’Connor said. “I think Mike’s a more mature player than he was last year. He’s in a role now where certainly everybody knows who he is and knows what he’s capable of doing, and that’s a tough act to follow, but I think he’s so talented that he’s capable of doing it.”
Fisher, a first-team Baseball America preseason All-American, will man the outfield alongside junior center fielder Brandon Downes, a third-team selection, and possibly 2013 ACC Freshman of the Year Joe McCarthy. Fisher hit .293 and knocked in 48 runs for Virginia in 2013, while Downes led the Cavaliers with 10 home runs, 59 RBI and 67 runs scored.
Another third-team preseason All-American, junior infielder Brandon Cogswell, also returns, though O’Connor might slide him from shortstop to second base to give the Cavaliers their “best double-play combination.” Junior Kenny Towns will hold down third base once again.
Despite considerable hype, Virginia does not appear fazed by the outside attention. For Fisher, there is little reason for any individual Cavalier to feel pressure when so many of his teammates can play.
“We have a good club, good lineup,” Fisher said. “There’s really no pressure, and that’s a credit to our entire team — you know, that we’re not really looking to one person to kind of do it all. And that’s obviously what makes Virginia baseball great … We’re one team, instead of relying on one person to kind of run the show.”