​No. 18 baseball hosts No. 2 Louisville this weekend

Virginia takes on nationally-ranked ACC foe

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Virginia baseball will need strong performances from underclassmen like sophomore infielder Andy Weber if they want to take down highly ranked Louisville this weekend.

Chelsea Bengson | Cavalier Daily

Fresh off its first ACC series win of the season, the No. 18 Virginia baseball team (20-6, 4-5 ACC) will face its toughest task thus far this weekend when No. 2 Louisville (22-2, 8-1 ACC) comes to Davenport Field.

After a largely impressive start to its season, Virginia has struggled at times in the first few weekends of conference play against tough opponents. The Cavaliers dropped their first two series to Clemson and North Carolina — currently ranked No. 5 and No. 8 in the country, respectively — before getting their first series win at home against Duke last weekend.

The series win against Duke did not come easy, as the team had to overcome a great deal of pitching adversity. The Blue Devils thrashed the Cavaliers 19-3 Friday, and the Virginia pitching staff gave up six runs in each of the final two games. The potent Virginia offense, however, carried the team in these games — plating 13 runs in each to give the team a couple of crucial victories.

"The first ACC series win was big for us," coach Brian O'Connor said. "It wasn't how you would draw it up — getting beat like we did on Friday and then to come back and win the last two like we did — but I think there are good lessons there that our guys are learning. I'm really proud of our guys. We learned this weekend what we need to do to be a little bit better in this league, and it's a continued learning process."

It’s no secret that this year’s Virginia team is powered by its offense, as exemplified last weekend. The team as a whole sports a .317 batting average, good for No. 16 in the nation.

With many teams that can pour on the offense in the ACC, something has to give to separate the contenders from the pretenders — and that is pitching. Thus far, the Virginia pitching staff hasn’t lived up to expectations in conference play. Cavalier pitchers have given up an average of eight runs per game in nine ACC matches thus far.

Most of the Cavaliers’ pitching woes can be attributed to a regression in starting pitching performance. Junior Adam Haseley — last year’s team ERA leader at 1.73 — has regressed to a 3.60 ERA as he has taken on a bigger role on offense. The team’s two other consistent starters — sophomores Evan Sperling and Daniel Lynch — have struggled to 6.75 ERAs. The only bright spot on the pitching squad is junior Derek Casey, who has broken out into an ace role with a 2.01 ERA. However, he has pitched the least innings out of any qualified starter on Virginia’s roster.

The struggles of Virginia’s rotation, however, have overshadowed the stellar job Virginia’s bullpen has done. Senior Alec Bettinger slid effortlessly into the role of long reliever, pitching to a 1.52 ERA while picking up some of the tough outings from Virginia’s starters. Bettinger pitched brilliantly in 5.3 innings of relief for Sperling against Duke, giving up only one earned run after Sperling gave up five. Junior closer Tommy Doyle has also taken on a crucial role for the Cavaliers, as he is frequently called upon by O’Connor to pitch two-inning saves in a pinch.

If Virginia’s starters can hold the fort while the team gets its offense going, the back end of the bullpen will be able to clamp down wins.

This weekend, however, Virginia’s offense may very well have a tough time supporting its pitching staff against loaded Louisville arms. The Cardinals’ team ERA of 2.05 is No. 2 in the nation to Oregon State’s 1.55, and they have allowed only 2.22 runs per game against ACC foes thus far. Freshman Nick Bennett has blazed onto the scene with a 0.69 ERA in four starts, good for No. 7 in the nation. Junior lefty Brendan McKay has been electric with a 1.13 ERA, and junior Kade McClure has been rock solid with a 2.43 ERA. Virginia could very well see all of Louisville’s three-headed monster on the mound this weekend, so it must prepare for low scoring if it hopes to take home the series in an upset.

The Cavalier pitchers will also have to be on high alert, since Louisville can also win with offense. The Cardinals’ team batting average of .321 ranks slightly above Virginia at No. 13 in the country. McKay is also Louisville’s best hitter — he ranks No. 12 in the nation with a .431 average and gets on base 55.6 percent of the time.

Virginia will have to beat a dangerously-complete team in Louisville to get over the .500 mark in the conference this weekend. First pitch in the three-game series is set for 6 p.m. Friday at Davenport Field.

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