Defense, pitching anchor No. 1 baseball
Cavaliers to rely on strong rotation and spotless fielding in midweek series
Following the No. 1 Virginia baseball team’s 10-0 win against George Washington April 2, the team’s offense — which had struggled — looked poised to break out. However, three weeks and 11 games later, the Cavaliers’ offense is still struggling, currently hitting just .273 compared to last year’s .312. Luckily, the team’s elite defense and pitching has kept the Cavaliers atop the national rankings.
The Cavaliers (30-7, 16-5 ACC) have the opportunity to break out of their offensive slump this week when they take on the VCU Rams (28-9, 9-4 A-10), a team which has topped 10 runs 10 times this season, and the Richmond Spiders (15-21-1, 6-9 A-10), who are 1-9 in their last 10 games.
“You know, we’ve been going down to The Diamond for a couple of years now playing VCU down there, and they’ve really gotten some great crowds, so it should be a great environment,” coach Brian O’Connor said. “VCU is having a fantastic year. It looks like they’ve been playing some very, very consistent baseball.”
One of the main reasons Virginia has lost some of it’s offensive spark has been struggling junior centerfielder Brandon Downes, who has seen his average fall this season from .318 to .239.
“It’s no secret that he’s [Downes] been struggling, okay, and you can either pout and feel sorry for yourself and ‘poor old me,’ or you can pick yourself up and keep fighting,” O’Connor said. “He has made the decision to keep working, keep being positive and knowing that his teammates are going to count on him.”
Virginia’s offense has also struggled with the loss of preseason All-American Derek Fisher, who broke his wrist during the Duke series. In 14 games prior to the injury, the junior outfielder was hitting .333 with seven RBIs, and his return could be a welcome boost to an offense which has lost nearly two and a half runs per game this season, dropping from 7.9 to 5.5.
“I mean, it’s definitely an injury that’s fixed,” Fisher said. “I know it’s fixed. Now I just got to prove it to myself.”
While Fisher’s return could help return the team to its previous offensive success, Virginia can still feel confident in its ability to win behind a strong pitching and defense. The Cavaliers’ pitching staff has posted the ACC’s lowest ERA of 2.06, and the team’s defense has recorded the league’s highest fielding percentage at .984. These impressive statistics rank third and second, respectively, across the nation.
“We know we’re talented — we are talented — and we just need to have confidence in ourselves,” Fisher said. “We have the best pitching staff in the entire country. And soon enough, you guys are going to see we have the best offense in the country.”
The standout play of the infield has played a significant role in the Cavaliers’ success on the defensive side of the game. The team’s infield is comprised of four high school shortstops, each one of the most athletic players at their positions.
“You have two shortstops playing in the middle of the field, and not that many people have that luxury,” O’Connor said. “[Sophomore] John La Prise is a very athletic third baseman. You know, he’s a high school shortstop. [Junior] Kenny Towns, when he’s playing first, he was a high school shortstop. [Junior] Nick Howard was a high school shortstop. There’s just athleticism on that infield, and when you have athleticism and range, you have an ability to really make consistent plays.”
Finally, the play of two freshmen — right hander Connor Jones and shortstop Daniel Pinero — has helped the Cavaliers compete amid their offensive struggles, and the pair have truly emerged as team leaders in the process. Pinero’s defensive consistency has anchored the ACC’s best defense, while Jones’ team leading 0.92 ERA has been the pitching staff’s bridge to Howard, who is fourth in the nation with 13 saves.
“I’ve been very up-front about this that I think Danny Pinero has a lot to do with it [the defense’s success],” O’Connor said. “[Jones]’s got great life and sink on his fastball — and a good slider — so it’s a role that he’s done a good job with, but I wouldn’t discount him starting at some point, certainly.”
The Rams, however, present a dangerous scoring team, ranking 11th in the country in scoring — totaling 7.3 runs per game — and hitting .314 collectively. In 20 games at The Diamond in Richmond, VCU is 16-4 and has won five of their last six.
“We’ll absolutely have our hands full on Tuesday night, but that’s what we need, quite frankly,” O’Connor said, “You know, those are the kind of people you play at championship time, and you might as well get used to it. And I think it’s a terrific opportunity for us down there.”
The Spiders are also a strong offensive team, leading the Atlantic 10 in home runs. The team’s struggles instead come as a result of a weak pitching staff, which has accrued a combined 5.29 ERA.
The Cavaliers travel to The Diamond Tuesday for a 6 p.m. first pitch and return to Charlottesville for Wednesday’s matchup with Richmond, which will also start at 6.