BLANK: Baseball finds the right combination

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Freshman pitcher Noah Murdock, who was drafted in Round 38 of the MLB Draft by the Washington Nationals, has a 3.80 ERA this season.

Chelesa Bengson | Cavalier Daily

There was never any doubt about as to who the leaders of this year’s baseball team would be. Junior Adam Haseley would hold down a weekend spot in the rotation, and centerfield when he did not pitch. Junior Ernie Clement would hit towards the top of the order and man a middle infield position. Classmate junior Pavin Smith would provide power from first base as well.

These three preseason All-Americans lived up to their billings from the outset — Haseley leads the team in both home runs with 11 and nine, respectively. And Smith has twice as many home runs as strikeouts — 10 to five. However, their supporting cast has left much to be desired.

Sophomore pitchers Daniel Lynch and Evan Sperling started the season following Haseley in the weekend rotation. While the pair flashed talent, the results were disappointing, as the they averaged a 6.06 ERA in their combined 74 innings pitched. Without established upperclassmen to fall back on, it was imperative to find people to fill in behind Haseley.

Junior right-handed pitcher Derek Casey has been more than up to the task. Casey was a highly-touted recruit coming into his freshman season, having been listed as a second-team All American by Perfect Game and drafted Round 22 of the MLB draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. However, he injured his elbow in his freshman season at Virginia, requiring Tommy John surgery that took him out of competition until this spring. Casey has posted a 2.57 ERA in eight starts this season. His move to the weekend rotation has gone equally well, as Casey gave up one run and struck out nine in seven innings of work in his first weekend start against Pittsburgh.

Joining Casey in the new-look rotation is 6-foot-8 freshman Noah Murdock. Murdock was no slouch of a recruit himself, as he was listed as a third-team All American by Perfect Game and drafted in Round 38 of the MLB Draft by the Washington Nationals. Although Murdock — the most junior member of the Cavaliers to notch a start this season — was used sparingly to start his freshman season, he has posted a 3.80 ERA overall and is performing admirably in his new role.

The Cavaliers’ weekend play has improved considerably since the transition — Virginia began the season 5-7 in its weekend ACC matchups, and has been 5-1 since.

The switch on the mound is not the only thing that helped improve Virginia’s recent play — the cast of players around Smith and Clement in the field has played a role as well.

When senior catcher Robbie Coman went down with an injury, there was a glaring lack of experience behind him. Since 2016 Los Angeles Angels first round pick Matt Thaiss had manned the position in prior seasons, there was little proven depth to replace Coman.

After experimenting with a couple other options, junior Caleb Knight, a junior college transfer from Connors State College in Oklahoma, was asked to fill in. Knight, who was named 2016 Spalding NJCAA Division I Defensive Player of the Year last season, has vastly exceeded expectations. Knight has reached base in over 55 percent of his plate appearances, and his .417 batting average is the best on the team — just ahead of Haseley. His play has made him difficult to bench, even as Coman returns.

Sophomore outfielders Cameron Simmons and Jake McCarthy have become crucial to the team’s success as well. Simmons, who led freshmen in starts last season, has become one of the team’s best hitters with a .378 average. McCarthy has started every game on the season, and he has a .299 average to go along with his 22 stolen bases — good for fifth in the nation and the most among players in Power Five conferences. Their steady play from the corner outfield positions has provided stability in what was an uncertain area for the Cavaliers entering the season.

While Coach Brian O’Connor often makes winning seem inevitable for the Virginia baseball team, there were numerous question marks headed into the year. After a disappointing end to last season, and without much of last year’s depth, the Cavaliers have had some rough patches this year. However, Virginia seems to have found a combination of players that can get the job done in ACC play, and the team is poised for success in the latter part of the season.

Jake Blank is a Senior Associate Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at j.blank@cavalierdaily.com or on Twitter at @Jake_33.

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