No. 1 Cavaliers best No. 5 Seminoles in Tallahassee
Virginia buoyed by pitching, fielding, wins two of three against Florida State
The Monday before the Virginia baseball team played its first game of the 2014 season, coach Brian O’Connor addressed three rows of reporters from his seat at the podium in the Hall of Fame Room at Davenport Field. His ball club was ranked No. 1 in the Baseball America and Perfect Game preseason polls after a 50-12 campaign that had ended — just outside the room’s tall glass doors — in a Super Regional sweep by Mississippi State.
That day in February, O’Connor articulated his vision for the coming year, suggesting that batting .312 with a .408 on-base percentage, while also delivering a repeat performance in the field and on the mound — where the Cavaliers were middle-of-the-pack and very good, respectively, in 2013 — might not be enough if the team hoped to contend for a College World Series title.
“Most of the college baseball games you play and you win are going to be four runs or less, right?” O’Connor said. “And so, as good of an offensive ball club that you have, that hitting power — all those kinds of things — that doesn’t win you the games. What wins you the games is the pitching and defense, and that’s the constant that has to be there every day.”
Wednesday night, after the top-ranked Cavaliers (36-8, 17-6 ACC) notched a 13-0 victory against Richmond to improve to 24-3 at Davenport Field and 11-1 in midweek games, O’Connor conveyed a strikingly similar message while discussing his team’s upcoming ACC series with No. 5 Florida State in Tallahassee, Florida.
“We’re going to need to go down there and get good starting pitching, manage it out of the bullpen and handle the ball defensively,” O’Connor said. “If all of the sudden we explode for good offensive days, that’s great. But we can’t change and try to do something different in this series than we’ve done all year. It’s worked for us.”
This year, Virginia has not always torn the cover off the baseball at the plate. The Cavaliers do not post many breathe-easy wins against high-caliber opponents, as evidenced by their five wins against Clemson, North Carolina and Virginia Commonwealth, which came by a combined six runs.
O’Connor’s club, however, knows how to win close ballgames. Virginia is 21-4 in games decided by its coach’s “four runs or less” margin. The Cavalier defense is a nine-man vacuum, ranking second in the country with a .985 fielding percentage, and the pitching staff, with a 2.16 ERA that easily paces the ACC and regularly confounds opposing lineups.
If UCLA provided a reasonably imitable blueprint for postseason success in winning the 2013 College World Series, Virginia’s pitching-and-defense prowess could be cause for excitement. The Bruins batted a stunningly mediocre .250, besting only 37 of 296 Division I teams in that category, but ranked fifth in fielding percentage and sixth in ERA nationally.
Arizona, however, nabbed the national title in 2012 behind a more offensively talented lineup. The Wildcats pitched and fielded aptly, ranking 71st nationally in ERA and 93rd in fielding percentage, but truly excelled at the plate, hitting .329 and reaching base in four of every 10 at-bats.
If a ball club can hit its way to the top, it is a good thing the Virginia lineup has nine more regular-season games — and nine more opportunities to swing the bats — before the ACC Baseball Championship May 20-25. Junior left fielder Derek Fisher, who has hit two home runs since returning from a broken hamate bone April 20, said that baseball is predicated on repetition.
“I mean, baseball’s all about — you know, hitting’s all about — playing every day,” Fisher said. “Baseball’s a game that should be played every day, and that’s a challenge that we face as college baseball players, is taking days off every single week. And credit to our team, we come out every single night, and we’re able to play, and we play the game hard. And that’s something we take pride in.”
While the Cavaliers will not play every day until the postseason, they do have a pair of four-game weeks coming up. Virginia will face Old Dominion Tuesday in Norfolk, Virginia, before taking off the rest of the week. The following Wednesday the Cavaliers will host Liberty before Georgia Tech visits Davenport Field Friday through Sunday. Two weeks from Tuesday, the Cavaliers will match up with VCU at home and then travel to Winston Salem, North Carolina for a conference series with Wake Forest Thursday through Saturday.
Virginia showed Friday night against Florida State that its brand of baseball is good enough to win against the country’s best. The Cavaliers came back from a 3-2, eighth-inning deficit on junior first baseman Mike Papi’s solo home run. In the ninth, redshirt senior reliever Whit Mayberry loaded the bases with one out before pulling off a remarkable escape.
Fisher belted a go-ahead, two-run double off Seminole redshirt freshman closer Jameis Winston in the top of the 10th, and the Cavaliers’ own fireman, junior Nick Howard, struck out the side in the bottom half for his ACC-leading 14th save and the 5-3 victory.
The Cavaliers’ style did not shine through in Saturday’s 7-0 loss. Virginia was shut out for the first time since Feb. 28, 2012, despite matching Florida State with nine hits.
Sunday, pitching and defense once more held sway. Sophomore left-hander Brandon Waddell scattered three hits across seven innings, and Howard nailed down a four-out save. The Cavaliers got just enough offense between junior third baseman Kenny Towns’s solo shot and Papi’s two run-scoring hits. The team did not commit an error in its 4-3 triumph.
It was the Virginia formula in action, a preview for what is likely to come this summer during the postseason.
“I think it’s always going to be the pitching and defense,” O’Connor said. “I think as our offense gets going and we perform as good as we can, you know, I think it can be pretty exciting. But the two staples that have got to be there are the pitching and defense. That’s what’s gotten us to this point, and that can’t change.”