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No. 1 Cavaliers host rival UNC in weekend series

O'Connor, team hope to keep up solid play at the plate after 14 hits against Tribe

The No. 1 Virginia men’s baseball team continues its homestand this weekend as it faces ACC rival North Carolina in a three-game series.

The Cavaliers (31-6, 14-4 ACC) won last weekend’s series against Clemson two games to one and beat William & Mary 11-2 Wednesday to bring their home record to 21-2 on the season. Virginia had won 16 straight games at home before a 7-1 loss in the second game of the Clemson series. With nine home games remaining in the season including the series against UNC, the Cavaliers are fast approaching last year’s 35-5 record within the confines of Davenport Field.

“I’m sure we’ll have a lot of fans like last time,” freshman catcher Matt Thaiss said. “They’re going to be great ballgames. We’re going to come out ready to play and play hard.”

Against the Tribe, Virginia was able to score in all but one inning, including a five-run third inning. Eleven Cavaliers connected at the plate for 14 total hits.

“Hitting is so tied to confidence and belief in yourself,” coach Brian O’Connor said. “And, you know, when you go out there and have success — and it’s not a matter of getting hits, it’s just a matter of having consistent, quality at-bats — you feel better about yourself going home and then you feel better the next day. So, hopefully we can have some carryover [of] that [going] into the Carolina series, because certainly we’ll need it.”

Virginia and North Carolina typically face non-conference teams for a midweek game. The Cavaliers were scheduled to play Radford Tuesday, but heavy rain forced the game’s cancellation. As a result, Virginia added the Wednesday game against William & Mary to the schedule. The Tribe brought in the nation’s top scoring offense, but were held to just four hits on the night.

“I know we can get excited because we have Carolina coming in and we just had Clemson, and kind of, like, the midweek games can be a little dull,” Thaiss said. “But everyone was fired up from pitch one, and we knew William & Mary is a great ball club. They’ve been really hot lately. And, you know, we stepped up when we needed to, and we played really well.”

North Carolina (22-15, 9-9 ACC) won against in-state foe Elon 5-4 Wednesday after scoring three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Tar Heels’ freshman right-hander Spencer Trayner entered the game in the eighth inning with the score 4-2 Elon. Trayner retired all six players he faced, including two by strikeout, to secure the win.

Virginia and UNC are first and second in the ACC in team ERA at 2.06 and 2.84, respectively. The Cavaliers’ pitching is led by sophomore left-hander Nathan Kirby, who was named National Player of the Week earlier this month after striking out 18 batters en-route to a no-hitter against Pittsburgh. North Carolina is led by sophomore right-hander Trent Thornton, a consensus freshman All-American last season who has continued to dominate opponents this season.

Both Kirby and Thornton were named to USA Baseball’s Golden Spikes Award midseason watch list, which consisted of 50 players from around the country. The award is given each year to the nation’s top amateur baseball players. The two are tied atop the ACC standing in wins this season with seven apiece, and are also both in the top five of the conference in ERA and strikeouts.

“North Carolina historically — as do we — have one of the top pitching staffs in the country, and their Friday-night starter is somebody that certainly can match Nathan Kirby,” O’Connor said. “So, it should be a great weekend of baseball. Two really good teams, and, you know, hopefully we continue to play like we have.”

The schedule doesn’t get any easier after North Carolina, with a pair of road trips to No. 5 Florida State and Wake Forest, the top two teams in the Atlantic Division, sandwiched around the Cavaliers’ last ACC home series against Georgia Tech. But the players know they have to concentrate just on who’s up next rather than try to look ahead.

“I mean, they’re a lot of fun,” senior right-hander Artie Lewicki said. “I think we treat all our games the same. We’ve got to go out there and treat everything like it’s do-or-die. Got to handle it one game at a time. We try not to fast forward to the future.”

First pitch of the UNC series is set for 6 p.m. Friday at Davenport Field, while the other games have a 1 p.m. start time Saturday and Sunday.