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Baseball looks to rebound against James Madison

Defense, batters experience uncharacteristic woes

Over the weekend at Davenport Field, one team combined timely hitting with superb pitching in addition to execution in the field and on the base paths to earn a series sweep.

This does not sound like an uncommon occurrence — Virginia baseball prides itself on its execution. But this time, the Cavaliers were the ones being swept.

Sixth-ranked Louisville, one of the hottest in the country, simply outplayed No. 15 Virginia (19-12, 6-9 ACC) — something coach Brian O’Connor is not accustomed to seeing.

“We haven’t earned the right to be frustrated because we’re not playing the game the right way enough,” he said.

Virginia finds itself in unfamiliar territory entering Wednesday’s contest with James Madison. They are not playing the game in customary Cavalier fashion, which clearly shows in the final results.

On the mound, Virginia pitchers cannot find the strike zone. Between 2010 and 2014, the Cavalier staff averaged 2.80 walks per nine innings — 903 free passes in 2,903.1 innings. This season, Virginia hurlers are walking 4.35 batters per nine innings — 138 walks in 285.1 innings. If the 2015 staff threw the same number of innings, this year’s team would give away almost 103 more walks than the pitchers of 2014.

The Cavaliers are over-reliant on freshmen in their bullpen, but this is out of necessity. These inexperienced arms are contributing to the spike in free passes — freshmen have walked 6.93 batters per nine innings.

However, stalwarts from years prior, like junior Brandon Waddell, are experiencing their own control issues. Last season, in 114 innings, Waddell issued only 19 walks. Through 40.1 frames in 2015, the Houston, Texas native already has 15.

“[Waddell] has flashes of really putting it together,” O’Connor said. “I know that at some point here he’s going to put it together, and I just don’t think that he’s been real consistent all year. He’s battled, and I’m proud of him. I’ll take Brandon Waddell any day of the week.”

When Cavalier hurlers have found the strike zone, a suspect defense has often let them down. Virginia teams of the past have prided themselves on making every play in the field. Since the current coaching staff assembled in 2004, the Cavaliers boast the best fielding percentage in the ACC at .974. This year, Virginia’s .965 fielding percentage is only eighth-best in the conference.

Sophomore shortstop Daniel Pinero has done his part to contribute to this dip. As a freshman, Pinero committed nine errors in in 274 defensive chances. This season, the Canadian export has 13 errors in 134 total chances, and his fielding percentage has dropped 64 points from .967 in 2014 to .903 in 2015.

“You’ve asked a player like Danny Pinero to step forward from last year, and he’s not, quite frankly,” O’Connor said. “That’s tough, and that’s frustrating. You hope those guys turn the corner because they need to turn the corner for us to have consistent success.”

The walks and errors go hand-in-hand. If a pitcher doesn’t trust his offense, then he tries to be too fine. When walks slow the game down fielders have lapses in attention.

“We’ve been in some situations where we haven’t made the plays that we usually have in the past,” senior third baseman Kenny Towns said. “Sometimes it just happens, and we haven’t been able to recover from it as well as we would like to … We need to make sure we make plays for those guys and save them pitches.”

While it did not show on the scoreboard, Virginia batters exceeded the dismal quality of play showcased by the team in the other facets of the game. The Cavaliers managed only five runs on 13 hits in three games against the high-powered Cardinal arms, but far too often well-struck balls were negated by defensive gems.

“There were eight or nine balls that we hit right on the barrel, and we just didn’t have anything to show for it,” O’Connor said of Monday’s game. “That’s just the way it’s going for us right now. We have to hang in there, and continue with a good approach.”

Still, there were flaws on offense. Twice in the series, Pinero could not lay down a sacrifice bunt to advance a runner and his inattention led to a pickoff at first base, which ended the third inning of the series finale.

The small things always matter in the game of baseball. They’re amplified when the team is mired in a losing streak.

“We can’t try to do too much,” Towns said. “We have to make sure we stick to the things that have given us success in the past couple years — just making sure we pay attention to those minor details and executing the game.

“We’re not as sharp as we need to be, and we need to make sure those rookies know that you have to come out there and play with intensity and attention to detail every day.”

With a dismal weekend series behind them, the Cavaliers can use their game with the Dukes (12-17, 2-7 ACC) to reaffirm their commitment to details.

First pitch is scheduled for 5 p.m.


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