Bullpen leads No. 1 baseball into midweek clash

Cavaliers' ride hot streak into home duel with Radford

As the weather in Charlottesville begins to heat up, so do the bats of the top-ranked Virginia baseball team. The Cavaliers — winners of four of their last five and 21 of their last 24 — have had a recent hot streak equally as attributable to the offense’s improvement as it is to the effectiveness of the back end of the bullpen.

Virginia (30-6, 14-4 ACC) has had particular success because the team’s relievers have been able work out of tough situations as well as protect and finish close wins. The bullpen, led by redshirt senior right-hander Whit Mayberry and junior two-way player Nick Howard, will likely get another chance to show its ability when the Cavaliers host Radford (18-16, 8-7 Big South) for a mid-week inter-conference matchup.

“I’m just a believer that the way the offensive game is right now in college baseball, you’d better be really good at the back end of the game,” coach Brian O’Connor said.

While the starting rotation’s dominance this season has been a hallmark of Virginia’s success, many of those wins would not have been possible without the superior closing ability of flame-throwing Howard, who boasts an ACC-leading 11 saves, while striking out 27 batters and allowing just three earned runs in 17.1 innings pitched.

“The kid’s got electric stuff, … [he’s] pretty much 96, 97 with a really good breaking ball — it’s really kind of like lightning in a bottle at the end of the game,” O’Connor said. “He can go out there and blow it out for an inning and let it rip, and he’s just been consistent for us.”

And because the ACC competition Virginia competes against is some of the best in the country, with many teams sending players to the MLB draft each year — such as Orioles catcher and Georgia Tech graduate Matt Weiters — it is that much more impressive for Howard to be having such success.

“Clemson’s a great hitting team,” junior catcher Nate Irving said. “They have a really strong offense with really talented hitters. And the kind of swings that they take off Nick really show what kind of stuff he has.”

Virginia was able to handle the Tigers and win the weekend series — but not without the vital contribution from Mayberry, who made two appearances throughout the three games, both holding Clemson scoreless and securing important one-run victories.

“I mean, it’s crazy, because we start to expect Whit to come in those big situations and just get out of it like it’s no problem,” Irving said. “He has that kind of that calmness and that poise about him where he’s just going to do it and it’s just going to happen.”

After the starting rotation and the closer, the rest of the pitching staff often gets overlooked. However, it’s becoming increasingly evident without the consistently solid pitching from Mayberry, the Cavaliers might not be where they are now.

“When you play a really good opponent like Clemson, and the other teams in our league, the games are going to be like that — …3-2, 4-3, you know,” O’Connor said. “Whit’s had a tremendous amount of experience in our uniform and continues to do the job for us.”

Following the challenging yet fruitful weekend series against Clemson, Virginia has just one day to recover before facing another strong offensive squad: Radford, who scores more than six runs per game — a total second in the Big South. Additionally, the Highlanders boast three players — senior infielder Alexander Lee, junior outfielder Patrick Marshall and junior infielder Hunter Higgerson — who bat more than .300.

“We always play great games with Radford,” O’Connor said. “They’re well-coached, and, you know, we get back out here tomorrow and practice and then line it up against Radford on Tuesday night — and hopefully as a good, solid tune up to go into the North Carolina series.”

Midweek starter and senior Artie Lewicki will likely be on the mound for first pitch from Davenport Field at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Published April 14, 2014 in FP test, Sports

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