No. 2 Cavaliers notch two wins against No. 14 Clemson
Pitching, fielding buoys Virginia in low-scoring Friday, Sunday contests
This weekend at Davenport Field, the No. 2 Virginia baseball team faced arguably its biggest test of the year: a three-game set against a dangerous No. 14 Clemson team. The series shaped up as a battle of defense versus offense, with the nation’s top fielding team, Virginia, seeking victory against the ACC’s leader in batting average.
Though the Cavaliers — also owners of the conference’s lowest ERA — slipped up Saturday in a 7-1 loss, the team had its run-prevention talents on full display in Friday’s opener and Sunday’s finale, twice quieting the predatory Tiger bats for a low-scoring, one-run win. Virginia (30-6, 14-4 ACC) improved to 9-0 in weekend series despite scoring just five runs in three games.
“Runs certainly were at a premium this weekend, and that’s a testament to both teams’ pitching staffs,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “You know, I feel great — however we did it — I feel great that we won another series.”
Basketball star senior Joe Harris strode to the pitcher’s mound minutes before the series began in earnest Friday night, delivering what Virginia play-by-play man Channing Poole termed a “borderline” high strike before joining his hoops teammates just off the right field line. Then, the Cavaliers offered the nine-inning, sandlot equivalent of Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense in a 3-2 win.
“I thought it was a clean-arm action out of Joe Harris,” O’Connor said. “I love his size. I’ll tell you, I mean, he did a heck of a job. So, I might talk to Joe and see if we can get, you know, maybe some help in the back half of the season here.”
The Cavalier hurlers squeezed the Clemson (21-14, 10-7 ACC) bats for much of the night, yielding five hits and three walks while combining for nine strikeouts. Sophomore left-hander Nathan Kirby did not match his April 4 performance against Pittsburgh — when he tossed an 18-strikeout no-hitter — but he did register his ninth consecutive quality start to begin the year. He credited the guys behind him for making pitching a reasonable proposition, even when he is not at his very best.
“I definitely didn’t have everything and couldn’t throw a strike every time I wanted to, but, you know, I just tried to throw as many strikes as I could and let them hit the ball,” Kirby said. “And, you know, with our fielding percentage and the way our defense has played, it’s helped … on a day like today.”
Virginia jumped out to a 2-0 lead after junior first baseman Nick Howard and junior center fielder Brandon Downes hit back-to-back one-out singles against Clemson sophomore left-hander Matthew Crownover. Junior catcher Nate Irving walked to load the bases.
Junior third baseman Kenny Towns then drove a sacrifice fly to right field, scoring Howard. Clemson freshman catcher Chris Okey threw to third base following the play at the plate in an effort to nab Downes, but the ball skipped into left field and Downes came home to score.
Clemson scored two runs against Kirby in the top of the third, but Irving answered an inning later, lining a double into the left-center gap for the go-ahead RBI. Kirby, redshirt senior right-hander Whit Mayberry and Howard held Clemson to one hit and three walks the rest of the way.
Saturday, Virginia became suddenly and inexplicably mediocre in the field, committing two errors and showing a lack of moment-to-moment sharpness. Sophomore right-hander Josh Sborz gave up no hits in his first five innings of work, but the Tigers pounced on him and the Virginia bullpen in the sixth and seventh innings, when they scored all seven of their runs.
After the game, O’Connor said he was looking for the team to play its usual fundamental baseball in the finale.
“I didn’t think that we played with the kind of intensity that you need to play with against a really great club like Clemson,” O’Connor said. “Outfielders overthrowing cut men and allowing extra bases, those are things that we’ve done well all year. Hopefully this is just a blip for us and we can come back tomorrow and play a clean game.”
Virginia was not perfect Sunday, as Clemson tallied eight hits to the Cavaliers’ four, and O’Connor’s bunch made the only error of the game. The Cavaliers, however, put together a run-scoring inning, and sophomore left-hander Brandon Waddell pitched a gem for the second week in a row, blanking Clemson for six and one-third innings seven days after throwing eight scoreless frames at Pittsburgh.
Waddell fired 86 pitches against the Tigers while fanning four. What stood out to O’Connor, however, was his walks total: zero. Waddell said he is not afraid to keep the ball in the strike zone because he knows his fielders have his back.
“We really just go after contact and we trust our defense — one of the best in the country,” Waddell said. “Knowing you have them behind [you], there’s no reason not to pitch to contact, so we kind of stick to that, and [our approach] stays efficient.”
Virginia and Clemson played before a packed house Sunday, when the sun shone brightly and temperatures neared 80 degrees. O’Connor is hoping for more of the same when his team matches up with North Carolina next weekend in its second-to-last home series of the year.
“This is what it should be like,” O’Connor said. “It should be like this next weekend against North Carolina, too. And, certainly the players enjoy playing in that environment. You know, they enjoy signing all the autographs after today’s game. It’s part of the deal. …We owe a lot to what we have in this program because of the fan support that we’ve gotten over the years.”
Virginia plays Radford Tuesday at Davenport Field. First pitch is set for 6 p.m.