Top-ranked baseball to play at JMU in mid-week matchup
Cavaliers look to continue hot streak in Harrisonburg
The top-ranked Virginia baseball team has won 10 of its last 11 matchups, and is looking to continue its run of dominance — behind one of its strongest rotations in years — against James Madison Tuesday.
Virginia (27-5, 12-3 ACC) struggled offensively at the beginning of the year, incurring disappointing losses to VMI, Duke and Miami. However, since the Cavaliers’ 7-1 loss at Miami March 22, the offense has slowly seemed to turn around leading into the midweek matchup with the Dukes (11-17, 3-2 CAA). The noticeable improvement has been largely fueled by junior second baseman Branden Cogswell’s consistent success in the leadoff spot, where he has posted a .298 average.
“Branden Cogswell’s really coming on,” coach Brian O’Connor said. “You know, he had a slow start, and he’s starting to consistently barrel the ball up and get hits.”
Cogswell’s emergence has helped the Cavaliers rebound from tough losses and ultimately string wins together. His play was most prominent throughout the team’s nine-game winning streak from late March to early April, in which Cogswell posted a .388 batting average. But the offense’s success was truly a team effort, with many different players following the leadership of the star second baseman.
“I always thought, you know, in an inning, in a game, hits are contagious.” Cogswell said, “I think once you see the wheels start rolling, everyone kind of hops on. And, as long as guys are not trying to do too much, I know good things are going to happen.”
Sophomore outfielder Joe McCarthy has also undergone an impressive emergence during the winning streak, in which he posted a .371 average and hits in 10 straight games.
“Joe McCarthy’s coming along … and he’s starting to really put together what he’s capable of doing,” O’Connor said.
While the offense is improving and different members of the lineup continue to contribute, O’Connor said there are still opportunities for improvement.
“You know, there’s a couple of guys in the lineup that are not there yet” O’Connor said. “The way I look at [it] is [that] it can be a real positive because when a guy like him [sophomore Brandon Downes] and a couple of other guys really get it going, it’s got a chance to be a lot of fun.”
Though the Cavaliers have struggled at the plate, the team has been able to overcome its offensive struggles and win 17 of their last 19 games, boosted by a combined 1.98 team ERA. The return of senior right-hander Artie Lewicki, who is coming off Tommy John Surgery, has provided added depth to an already strong rotation.
“[He] threw the ball good, [and] his velocity was back up to where it was before he got hurt.” O’Connor said. “So, you know, we’ll see how he is the next couple days. You know, if he continues to progress forward, that’ll be a really big shot in the arm for us.”
Lewicki — who was also plagued by injury leading into the 2013 season — appeared in 16 games and posted a 3.82 ERA two seasons ago as a sophomore. His added depth as a senior is especially helpful in the middle of the season, when games are played more frequently and fatigue affects the team, especially pitchers.
“I think as we continue to build him up — and, you know, hopefully eventually we’re through the woods on his injury — I just think it gives us plenty more options,” O’Connor said.
As Virginia looks forward to the stretch run and postseason play, having a reliable fourth starter who can also come out of the bullpen will prove a useful asset.
“[If] you get into … an ACC Tournament, [then] you’ve got somebody that can start for you as a fourth starter that’s really a high-quality guy,” O’Connor said. “And when you get into tournament time, NCAA Regional time … the more pitching depth you have, I think that really increases your chances of winning the thing.”
Although the Cavaliers are traditionally a presence in postseason play, the team has just passed the season’s halfway mark and cannot overlook its matchup with intrastate rival James Madison.
While Virginia beat James Madison 13-2 at Davenport Field in March, four of the team’s five losses have been away or at neutral sites. Additionally, the Cavaliers arrived in Charlottesville from Pittsburgh just two days before they were set to travel again to Harrisonburg, which could lead to added fatigue.
Another interesting storyline leading into Tuesday night’s game is the emergence of freshman starter Alec Bettinger, who has posted a 3-0 record this season. Bettinger, who has a 0.95 ERA and impressive wins against Princeton, Old Dominion and Longwood, has become a reliable midweek starter, providing more depth and talent to an already strong rotation. Bettinger has been especially important to Virginia as Lewicki works his way back into his sophomore year form.
“It wasn’t like the plan at the beginning of the year for me to be the midweek guy, but ever since [Lewicki] went down, you know, I just kind of had to pick it up,” Bettinger said.
First pitch of the Cavaliers game against James Madison will take place at 6 p.m. at Eagle Field in Harrisonburg, Va.