Top-ranked baseball wins two against North Carolina
Fisher returns after missing 25 games due to injury
The visiting North Carolina Tar Heels handed the home-cozy Virginia baseball team its third loss in 25 games this season at Davenport Field Sunday afternoon. Sophomore left-hander Brandon Waddell gave up his first runs in the month of April, and junior first baseman Mike Papi’s batting average slipped below .300.
No. 1 Virginia, though, had plenty to feel good about following the 4-2 defeat. The Cavaliers (33-7, 16-5 ACC), the winningest Division I baseball program since 2009, had taken two of three games against the Tar Heels (23-17, 10-11 ACC), whose 266 victories in the same period trail only Virginia and No. 6 South Carolina.
Total attendance for the weekend surpassed 14,000 fans. And in the finale, junior left fielder Derek Fisher returned to the lineup, batting eighth, after missing 25 games with a broken hamate bone.
“He’s an All-American kind of player, and when you get him back in there and he gets more at-bats, I hope that it can make a big difference for us,” coach Brian O’Connor said.
Fisher had not played since March 9, when the Cavaliers were in Durham, N.C. for a three-game series against Duke. He worked his way back slowly, wearing a cast at first, but said he felt Sunday was finally his day to play.
“I started taking BP a few days ago and it felt good, and each and every day [I] kept doing the same thing, and they left it up to me,” Fisher said. “And, you know, I felt comfortable, I felt good in batting practice, and quite frankly, I just couldn’t watch in the dugout for much longer.”
With Fisher back in the lineup, the Cavalier offense is expected to pick up. Virginia scored eight runs in three games against North Carolina, and after junior shortstop Michael Russell jacked a two-run shot off Waddell in the fifth inning Sunday, the Cavaliers proved unable to rally.
Russell racked up six hits on the weekend, leaving town with a .348 batting average — and Waddell’s respect.
“He’s an absolutely great hitter, as you could see the whole weekend,” Waddell said. “You know, whether he’s in a bad count or he’s in an even or a plus count, regardless of what it is, he finds a way to get it done.”
Sophomore closer Reilly Hovis retired all 11 batters he faced to secure the save for North Carolina, a ball club O’Connor and the Virginia players consider top-notch despite its struggles in the talented ACC.
“It’s a credit to North Carolina, coming here and losing the first two and finding a way to win game three,” O’Connor said. “Hopefully we can just try to get a little bit better and get back after it again on Tuesday.”
Virginia started the weekend with a 3-2 win against sophomore right-hander Trent Thornton, whose high leg kick calls to mind the delivery of legendary San Francisco Giants southpaw Juan Marichal. Thornton entered the series with the second-lowest ERA in the conference, his 1.50 mark bettered only by Virginia sophomore left-hander Nathan Kirby — his Friday-night adversary.
Kirby and Thornton each put up a quality start, but in the end, Virginia’s ace trumped North Carolina’s. Kirby pitched into the eighth inning, fanning 12 Tar Heel batters and picking up his eighth win.
Redshirt senior right-hander Whit Mayberry struck out sophomore third baseman Landon Lassiter with a man on second in his one-out appearance, and junior closer Nick Howard shut North Carolina down in the ninth, recording three swinging strikeouts with his diabolical mid-80s slider.
“Kirby’s throwing unbelievably well,” junior center fielder Brandon Downes said. “He’s just unreal right now. And Whit literally is a grinder. He comes in like any time — he could throw like five pitches and go into the game. He’s just ready to go. He’s amped up, and I love him for that. And Howard comes in just throwing absolute fuzz. It’s just really exciting to be able to have one-run leads and hold them with our defense and pitching.”
Downes, in a slump for much of the year, launched a two-run home run in the second inning and added a sacrifice fly in the sixth to lead the Virginia bats.
“You know, he’s really been scuffling,” O’Connor said. “But he hasn’t quit on himself. He’s come to the ballpark every day. He’s working hard. He had a monster year last year hitting in the four-hole for us all year, and it just hasn’t went his way this year. And, he has made the decision to keep working, keep being positive and knowing that his teammates are going to count on him, and it was huge for us today.”
Junior infielder Kenny Towns had his own redemptive ballgame Saturday, when Virginia claimed a 3-1 win despite tallying three hits to North Carolina’s 10. Towns, primarily a third baseman last year, played a spotless first base and blasted his first home run of the year.
Sophomore right-hander Josh Sborz, who gave up one hit to each of North Carolina’s batters — “I was just trying to spread the love,” he said — also said he was appreciative of Towns’ performance.
“He played really well today,” Sborz said. “He picked me up a lot, especially those plays at first where he put them like perfect where I could catch it. But that home run released a lot of tension … once I had that three-run lead, I felt like I could really pitch and have fun.”
The Cavaliers play Virginia Commonwealth on the road Tuesday and Richmond at home Wednesday. First pitches against the Rams and Spiders are set for 7 p.m. and 6 p.m., respectively.