Thaiss, No. 1 baseball ready for clash with Keydets

Powerful Virginia offense welcomes VMI for a midweek showdown


Last Sunday against East Carolina, No. 1 Virginia baseball’s batting order included the reigning ACC Player of the Week, last year’s conference batting champion, two players honored as Baseball America Preseason All-Americans and the 2013 ACC Freshman of the Year. Despite this, the player who gave the Pirates’ staff the most trouble in the Cavaliers’ 6-2 victory may well have been Matt Thaiss, the freshman designated hitter who ended the day 3 for 4 with a pair of doubles, two runs scored and an RBI.

“You can tell he’s learning each and every at-bat and, again, taking what he’s given,” junior outfielder Derek Fisher said. “And, obviously, he’s driving balls in the gap. But, I mean, he’s taking advantage of the mistakes and battling with two strikes, and fortunately they’re going in the gaps for him. But he’s hitting balls hard, and I’m sure that’s all he can ask for.”

While veteran standouts like Fisher, junior centerfielder Brandon Downes and junior first baseman Mike Papi did much of the heavy lifting in the Cavaliers’ weekend sweep, Thaiss showed he too is capable of driving the ball. The sturdy freshman — one of Virginia’s many viable options at catcher along with junior Nate Irving, sophomore Robbie Coman and Downes — hammered a two-out double to left field to chase East Carolina starter David Lucroy from the ballgame in the third inning. He struck again two innings later, singling off senior right-hander Ryan Williams and coming home on sophomore third baseman John La Prise’s base knock.

Thaiss, a Boston Red Sox draft pick out of high school, says he is eager to contribute to Virginia however he can, crediting his teammates for his early-season success — perhaps best statistically captured by his .353 batting average and four doubles in 17 at-bats.

“I mean, everyone has just given me pieces of information,” Thaiss said. “Defensively, Nate Irving [and] Robbie Coman — you know, they’ve gotten me through the whole fall and spring. You know, it’s really tough to catch here and learn the system, and they’ve been helping me as much as they can. On the offensive side, same thing. Nate [Irving], Derek [Fisher], Mike [Papi], I mean all the older guys … [I’m] just learning from their experience. And it really helps. It really pays off.”

Virginia (6-1) has played winning baseball since an opening-day loss to Kentucky in the Hughes Bros. Challenge in part because of the depth of its lineup and pitching staff. Freshmen, from Thaiss to shortstop Daniel Pinero and reliever Connor Jones, have stepped up early for the Cavaliers, while returning players have embraced novel roles. Sophomore right-hander Josh Sborz, who pitched out of the bullpen last year and is 2-0 as a starter in 2014, sees the strength of the Cavaliers’ pitching corps as a vehicle for success.

“From the top to the bottom, everyone can pitch here,” Sborz said. “Everyone competes well, and that’s all we’ve got to do. If we keep that up, we should be great all the way through.”

Tuesday, the Cavaliers take on Virginia Military Institute, an opponent Virginia has already played once this season. The Keydets (4-2) lost 12-0 to Virginia at the Hughes Bros. Challenge, but have proceeded to post four straight wins since that game. The Cavaliers certainly are not looking past their competitors from the Big South, who returned seven everyday starters from last year’s 20-35 squad, including All-Conference catcher Matt Winn.

“VMI’s always a team that’s going to play us hard,” Fisher said. “I know in 2011, [they] actually stuck it to [us] pretty good, before I was here. And, you know, playing a team like that — a midweek team that’s going to battle — I think is the best thing that we can do, because you can’t really take any days off.”

VMI is coming off its own three-game sweep of Lafayette at home in Lexington, Va. The Keydets outscored the Leopards 16-4 in the series, and, in Friday’s contest, junior right-hander Reed Garrett tossed a 13-strikeout no-hitter.

Virginia fans came to Davenport in force this past weekend — Sunday’s crowd was the largest ever for a home game in February — in a long-coming development coach Brian O’Connor sees as reciprocal and beneficial to both players and fans.

“We feel like we’ve built a pretty good brand in this community that Virginia baseball’s exciting,” O’Connor said. “It’s fun to come out and watch, and certainly we couldn’t do it without those fans.”

First pitch is set for Tuesday at 3 p.m.

Published February 24, 2014 in Sports

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