No. 6 Baseball sweeps series against Pirates
Downes rips two leadoff home runs against ace Hoffman in 3-2 Friday victory
The Virginia baseball team blasted a leadoff home run this weekend at Davenport Field, sweeping East Carolina in its first home series of the 2014 season. The No. 6 Cavaliers, playing before the largest home crowd for a February series in program history, extended their winning streak to six games with on-point pitching and spotless defense.
“You know, East Carolina’s year-in and year-out got a very, very good ball club,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “The thing I was impressed about our club the most was the fact that all weekend the defensive intensity that we played with was pretty special — the fact that we didn’t have an error in all three ballgames. You know, if you throw strikes like we did on the mound and you handle the ball defensively like we did, you’re going to have a chance to win every ballgame you’re in.”
Friday’s opener pitted Pirates (3-4) junior ace Jeff Hoffman against the dangerous Virginia (6-1) lineup, a marquee college baseball matchup in the truest sense. Hoffman, a right-hander considered to be a top-five pick in this year’s MLB First-Year Player Draft, piped in high-90s heat and sprinkled in a change-up, throwing six and one-third innings of five-hit, four-walk ball.
Junior centerfielder Brandon Downes, though, got to Hoffman in a big way, tagging him for a pair of leadoff home runs to left-center field in the second and sixth innings.
“We knew he was going to be throwing hard, probably throwing a lot of fastballs,” Downes said. “I mean, I faced him last year and he gave it to me pretty good. He struck me out three times chasing sliders, so basically I just went up there and I was going to try to work early and try to see something, hopefully a fastball or something, up in the zone.”
Virginia also scored off Hoffman in the third, when junior second baseman Branden Cogswell drew a two-out walk, took second on a breaking ball that got away from Pirates sophomore catcher Travis Watkins, and came home on junior first baseman Mike Papi’s double.
On the other side of the ball, sophomore left-hander Nathan Kirby matched Hoffman pitch for pitch. Kirby ran into trouble in the third inning, walking sophomore centerfielder Garrett Brooks and hitting senior second baseman Drew Reynolds to load the bases with two outs.
The Pirates plated two runs when Cogswell lost a high pop-up off the bat of senior third baseman Zach Houchins in the sun-shadow line while running across the Davenport infield. Kirby, though, rebounded to strike out junior cleanup hitter Ian Townsend, with help from junior catcher Nate Irving.
“I just wanted to get off the mound,” Kirby said. “I was definitely rattled, but you know, with Irv and a couple of the guys talking to me in the infield, it really helped me get through it. I can honestly say that I probably wouldn’t have gotten through it without them.”
Kirby worked six and one-third innings overall and started a run of 17 consecutive scoreless for the Cavalier pitching staff. Virginia took his start, 3-2, and blanked the Pirates 4-0 Saturday, getting five strong frames from sophomore right-hander Josh Sborz and four scoreless relief innings from sophomore David Rosenberger and freshman Connor Jones.
Virginia sophomore right fielder Joe McCarthy made one of the finer plays of the weekend in the fourth inning of Sborz’s start. With one out and a man on first, McCarthy ranged to his left to catch a well-hit line drive off the bat of senior leftfielder Ben Fultz and then fired a one-hop strike to Papi to double-off Pirates’ sophomore first baseman Luke Lowery, who was running on contact.
“I thought it was a sure double, but Joe has great speed and all,” Sborz said. “[He] got the ball and made a great throw to first to make the double-play, which really helped out.”
McCarthy, the 2013 ACC Freshman of the Year, also had a big day at the plate, finishing with two hits, an RBI and a run scored. His production from the three-hole was a common theme for Virginia, as the Cavaliers’ two through six hitters accounted for seven of the team’s 10 hits and all four of their runs batted in.
Virginia was back at it Sunday, when sophomore left-hander Brandon Waddell took the mound for his first start since a season-opening loss to Kentucky. Waddell limited East Carolina (3-4), an NCAA Tournament team in 2011 and 2012, to two runs in five and two-third innings, and redshirt senior Whit Mayberry used his low-90s fastball and tight slider to silence the Pirates’ order in his two and a third frames out of the bullpen.
After Townsend work a walked off sophomore reliever Kevin Doherty leading off the ninth, O’Connor signaled for junior closer Nick Howard.
Howard closed Friday’s one-run win and looked strong again Sunday, throwing in the mid-90s and sending down Lowery and senior left fielder Dylan Brown swinging. When Fultz lined out to right to end it, Howard had navigated his second successful high-leverage appearance of the weekend.
“I mean, everybody’s on their feet, on edge, for the last couple outs of the game when there’s a one-run game, and I mean personally, I just embrace that,” Howard said Friday. “It’s a lot of high energy [and] high intensity, so it’s a lot of fun going out there to get the last out.”
Virginia scored all six of its runs Sunday with two outs, a statistic junior outfielder Derek Fisher said speaks to the character of the team.
“We’re a blue-collar baseball team, and I think anybody that’s a fan of baseball understands that, you know, two-out hits are going to win you championships,” Fisher said. “You know, with this team, we’re going to battle each and every at-bat.”
Virginia plays VMI Tuesday at home. First pitch is slated for 3 p.m.