Virginia duels Longwood
No. 2 Baseball has uncommonly talented catching corps
Junior catcher Nate Irving started 56 games for Virginia last year and 49 in 2012. Irving, a two-time All-ACC Academic Baseball Team honoree, swatted 17 doubles and knocked in 65 runs in his first two campaigns while making just five errors.
Irving’s play undoubtedly contributed to Virginia’s 89 wins during his first two years in Charlottesville. This year, the No. 2 Cavaliers (19-4, 7-2 ACC) are thriving again, and their starting backstop is getting more days off. The reason: Virginia’s catching corps is uncommonly talented.
“We talked about this coming into the year, that this has been the best catching depth that we’ve had since we’ve been here — the fact really that we have three guys that we have confidence in,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “Nate, in his first two years here, has caught 95 percent of our innings, and that’s a tough position to play at every day.”
Sophomore Robbie Coman, who missed 19 games at the beginning of last year, has started 10 games behind the plate in 2014, and his production — he is hitting .297 in 37 at-bats and is reaching base at a .395 clip — has been a boon to Irving, who is batting .321 and blasted the first home run of his Virginia career earlier this season.
“Robbie’s done a really nice job, and Robbie would have been in there a lot more last year had he not gotten hurt,” O’Connor said. “I think it makes both of them better, you know, the fact that neither one of them has to catch every day, and if we’re in a position where [freshman] Matt Thaiss has to go back there, we have confidence in him, too.”
The Cavaliers, winners of every one of their six weekend series, draw swords with the Longwood Lancers (12-13, 2-4 Big South) this Wednesday at Davenport Field. Whether Irving or Coman starts the game behind the plate, he will enjoy the respect of his fellow backstop. Irving claims Virginia has the best catchers in the country. Coman did not disagree.
“We’ll go with him,” Coman said. “That’s fine.”
Virginia last played Longwood in 2008, when the Cavaliers made the first of two College World Series appearances with O’Connor at the helm. Virginia defeated the Lancers, 6-0, as starter Jake Cowan and left-handed reliever Matt Packer combined to toss a five-hitter. Longwood last defeated the Cavaliers April 9, 1984.
Freshmen pitchers Connor Jones and Alec Bettinger have done for the Virginia staff what Coman has done for Irving: take pressure off of veteran contributors by coming through when asked to perform. Jones, a 21st round pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, was the winning pitcher for Virginia on Sunday and Monday night against Miami, and his 1.04 ERA is best in the ACC.
Bettinger, for his part, started for the first time last Thursday against Princeton. The right-hander bounced back from an inauspicious beginning — he yielded hits to the Tigers first three batters — to earn the win with four innings of two-run baseball. Bettinger said Jones’ company has benefitted him as both learn to succeed at the college level.
“He’s been able to pick it up so quick because he’s such a fast learner, and he’s teaching me how to do that, so it’s really nice,” Bettinger said.
The Lancers enter Wednesday batting .272 with a .335 on-base percentage. Senior shortstop Matt Dickason leads the team in batting average at .352 and total bases at 51. The Longwood pitching staff owns a 3.89 ERA on the year.
O’Connor has not yet announced who will start on the mound against the Lancers, but he may well choose to make the game a staff day, asking several pitchers to throw an inning or two. If he goes that route — as he did in last week’s midweek wins against Towson and Princeton — he may hand the ball to some of the less-used arms in the Virginia bullpen. Last week, O’Connor said establishing a deep corps of relievers would help Virginia stay energized throughout the season.
“Quite frankly, we’ve been using really the same four or five guys out of the bullpen all year long, and we need to create some more depth in that bullpen,” O’Connor said. “… If you keep going to the same pitchers — you know, [junior Nick] Howard, [redshirt senior Whit] Mayberry and [freshman Connor] Jones and [sophomore David] Rosenberger — you’re going to burn those guys out. So, we need to give these guys the opportunity.”
Virginia’s younger players will likely experience a measure of difficulty as they continue their adjustment to college baseball. For Coman, getting comfortable at a new, higher level is fundamentally a matter of time.
“Last year was a learning experience for me — you know, you learn the ins and outs — and then you get out there on the field and just play,” Coman said.
First pitch against Longwood is set for 5 p.m.