As the No. 10 Virginia baseball team enters the final leg of its season, the team is hungry for more conference wins to increase its standing in the ACC. The Cavaliers (33-10, 12-9 ACC) will look to do just that when they travel to Tallahassee, Fla. to take on Florida State (26-16, 10-10 ACC) in a weekend series.
Virginia will enter the weekend fully recharged on extra rest, since it’s midweek game against Radford was postponed due to rain. The Cavaliers are coming off a home series victory last weekend at against Notre Dame, which saw the team battle through some inconsistencies to grab two convicting victories. Particularly encouraging was Virginia’s 9-0 shutout win over the Fighting Irish Saturday, which came hours after the team looked lost on both sides of the ball in an 8-2 loss Friday night. In what was a crucial game to lock up an ACC series, the Cavaliers were locked in.
"Our guys responded like we needed to and won a key ACC series," Coach Brian O'Connor said. “I'm proud of our guys for finding a way to win the series."
The Cavaliers won the game in part on the strength of key contributions from two of its most important breakout players. Sophomore outfielder Cameron Simmons continued his tear from the plate, going 3-5 while chipping in an RBI. Simmons had the same line against Notre Dame in the first game of the series, helping Virginia towards a 14-4 win. The sophomore took a 13-game hit streak into Friday night before being held hitless.
Simmons’ hot streak has given Virginia another bat to rely on for big hits — he is second on the team in batting average (.374) and third in RBIs (36). With juniors Adam Haseley and Pavin Smith shaping up to be high picks in June’s MLB Draft, Simmons is starting to emerge as a potential offensive leader for the team in the near future.
Saturday’s game also featured a strong performance on the mound from freshman pitcher Noah Murdock. In the fifth start of his young career, the towering 6-foot-8 righty fired 6.1 shutout innings in one of his best outings of the year. Murdock was far from perfect — he walked four and only struck out three — but the winning result was enough to give O’Connor confidence that the freshman is becoming a reliable starter.
"Noah Murdock pitched around some walks,” O’Connor said. “He's learning and growing, and he didn't let those walks beat him. He managed to pitch around them and give us a great, quality start.”
The Colonial Heights, Va. native has been steadily improving throughout his starts and has helped shore up a weekend rotation that was very inconsistent early in the season. If junior starter Derek Casey — Virginia’s ace for most of the season — can break out of his recent slump and Haseley continues to be solid, Murdock will round out a very formidable rotation for Virginia heading into the playoffs.
The rotation’s next test against Florida State will be a good indicator of how far it has come. While the Seminoles are only .500 in the ACC this season, they are a dangerous team at home, boasting a 16-8 record at Dick Howser Stadium. Most notably, Florida State took down then-No. 3 Clemson in a home series two weeks ago, proving they can play with anyone in the conference.
The Seminoles are a slightly above-average team on both sides of the ball, hitting .264 and sporting a 3.94 ERA collectively. Junior third baseman Dylan Busby is Florida State’s biggest all-around threat at the plate — boating a .308 average with eight homers and 41 RBIs while leading the team in slugging percentage at .575. Senior first baseman Quincy Nieporte adds some power to the lineup with eight home runs and 49 RBIs on the season. Sophomore starter Tyler Holton is the ace of the Seminole pitching staff, sporting a 2.92 ERA with a team leading 78 strikeouts. The southpaw averages 11.38 strikeouts per game, good for third in the ACC.
Virginia will have to give solid efforts on the mounds and from the plate to best Florida State on the road in an important ACC showdown for both ball clubs. First pitch between the Cavaliers and Seminoles from Tallahassee is set for 6 p.m. Friday, following by 1 p.m. starts Saturday and Sunday.