BLANK: New leaders in the clubhouse
Upon the start of the 2015 postseason, the Virginia baseball team was coming off one of its most lackluster seasons in recent memory, finishing with the worst record of their previous seven seasons. The team had been ravaged by injuries and was relying on unproven freshmen to carry significant weight.
The Cavaliers had overcome huge odds to get to the finals of the super regional. Already a victory ahead of Maryland in a best-of-three series, the team found itself down by two runs going into the bottom of the last inning, with a trip to the College World Series in Omaha a few clutch plays away. After Virginia managed to load the bases with two outs, relatively unheralded freshman second baseman Ernie Clement, one of the team’s weaker hitters, was challenged with staving off elimination. Clement came through in the clutch, rapping a line drive down the left field line, and the Cavaliers advanced.
While Virginia had success in their first two rounds in Omaha, they lost game one of the finals to defending champion Vanderbilt, putting their backs against the wall. With none of their traditional starters available they again had to turn to a freshman, starting center fielder and leadoff hitter Adam Haseley. Against all odds, Haseley pitched brilliantly, shutting Vanderbilt out for a career high five inning and propelling Virginia to a third game to determine the champion. The Cavaliers went on to win game three, on the strength of a two-run home run from freshman first baseman Pavin Smith, in addition to a two-hit game from Haseley.
Those three freshmen — Clement, Haseley and Smith — were recognized both by Virginia fans and people across the country for their efforts. Clement made the all-tournament team, and Smith and Haseley were both named freshman all-Americans. With Virginia’s unmemorable, disappointing season last year, which featured no postseason trip to Omaha, the players are frozen in the memories of many Cavalier fans’ minds as freshmen who came through in the clutch.
Their role on the team is much different now, as Clement, Haseley and Smith are considered seasoned veterans of the 2017 team. Whereas they won their tournament with the help of numerous older teammates, who had years of Omaha experience, this upcoming season the majority of postseason experience stems from the freshmen on that 2015 team. Clement, Haseley and Smith, along with their fellow players, will now have to provide the core of the team’s leadership.
Thankfully, although Virginia fans may not have noticed, the three have made drastic improvements since that famous postseason run. Clement raised his average over a hundred points last season, earning a spot on the All-ACC third team. Smith hit for a higher average and power as well, securing himself a spot on the All-ACC second team. Haseley built on his success against Vanderbilt, earning a spot in Virginia’s rotation and leading the team in earned run average on his way to a spot on the all-American third team.
They continued this improvement over the summer as well, as players on elite summer league teams.
Coach Brian O’Connor called it “the most productive [summer] we’ve had in our program since I’ve been here.”
Clement was named most valuable player of the Cape Cod league, the top league for college players, with a .353 batting average and 19 swiped bases. Smith and Haseley played alongside him in Cape Cod, accumulating 400 plus at bats between them. They weren’t the only players to develop over the summer, as their classmate, junior pitcher Tommy Doyle, threw 33 innings with a 1.62 earned run average. Doyle also figures to be a prominent member of the rotation this upcoming season.
On Saturday, Virginia will play their first game, a fall exhibition against Liberty, since the spring season ended. It presents an opportunity for Virginia to get acclimated, as what has become a perennial powerhouse faces an unusual degree of uncertainty. Virginia lost 10 players to the draft the past two seasons, including losing two second-team all-Americans — starting pitcher Connor Jones and catcher Matt Thaiss — over the summer.
With a fairly inexperienced roster, the challenge of getting back to Omaha may be greater than Virginia is used to. If they’re going to have postseason success, however, the burden of doing so will once again fall on Clement, Haseley and Smith’s shoulders, a trio who proved capable of carrying that weight when unexpectedly asked to do so in 2015. In light of how well they performed then, in addition to the strides they’ve made since, I wouldn’t bet against them.
An earlier version of this column reported that the Cavaliers did not reach postseason last year, when they actually did for the 13th straight year. The earlier version also said Virginia was facing instant elimination in their 2015 College World Series game against Maryland. Virginia was up one game already in a best-of-three series.