Early season struggles and inconsistencies for the Virginia baseball team seem far in the past, as the No. 11 Cavaliers (31-9, 10-8 ACC) have become one of the hottest teams in the country. Virginia hosts ACC foe Notre Dame (17-20, 7-11 ACC) in a weekend set to improve its conference record.
A 5-7 start in the conference this year had the Cavaliers searching for answers as to why they weren’t living up to high expectations, but the current team seems to have figured out a formula for success. After the offense carried the team for much of the early season, Virginia has found a balance as its pitching staff has picked up the team in tight contests.
Virginia is still led from the plate by junior outfielder Adam Haseley and junior first baseman Pavin Smith, who have both garnered national attention for big bats. ESPN baseball analyst Keith Law projected both players to be top-20 picks in this year’s MLB draft after proving they can play at a high level this season. Smith has especially been on a tear as of late, earning ACC and National Player of the Week last week and going 5-8 in two midweek games this week. His 53 RBIs on the season are good for second in the ACC, and he has struck out a mere five times in 156 plate appearances. Haseley, meanwhile, leads the ACC in batting average at a .407 clip and gets on base in more than half of his at bats, proving to be the Cavaliers’ most consistent threat.
Though Haseley and Smith are undoubtedly Virginia’s leaders on offense, other players have come out strong as of late to fuel Virginia’s win streak. Sophomore outfielder Cameron Simmons has proven himself a reliable power bat for Virginia in recent weeks, belting three homers in the past week alone. Simmons has upped his average to .366 with his recent hot streak, good for tying second on the team.
Virginia’s catching tandem of graduate Robbie Coman and junior Caleb Knight have also broken out at the plate as of late. Coman has been consistent throughout the season as the main starter, hitting .366 and showing some pop with five homers. Knight, a transfer, has shown he can play at a starter level in the time he’s gotten behind the dish. The junior has a .404 average in 52 at bats this season and has been continually improving his defense.
Virginia’s success has been just as dependent on the breakout of several hitters from the plate as its recent rotation stability. Virginia’s early season ACC losses resulted from rough outings for its starters when the offense couldn’t get going. Coach Brian O’Connor seems to have found a weekend rotation that can lead the team to wins when its offense isn’t at its best. Though he had a tough outing against Virginia Tech last week, junior Derek Casey has pitched like Virginia’s ace for most of the season while transitioning to a weekend starting role. He leads the team with a 2.57 ERA. Freshman Noah Murdock pitched his way into becoming Virginia’s primary mid-weekend starter, and his performance has greatly improved with experience the last few weeks. Murdock blanked Virginia Tech in seven innings in his most recent start last week. Haseley has also been rock-solid as the team’s final weekend starter, pitching to a 3.31 ERA and leading the team in strikeouts with 46.
Virginia looks to achieve a series victory against a Notre Dame team ranking in the bottom half of team batting average as well as ERA. The Fighting Irish have struggled mightily against the ACC’s top teams this season, getting swept by Clemson, Florida State and Wake Forest thus far. If the Cavalier pitchers can hold the light-hitting Irish bats in check, they will most likely get a well-earned series win in Virginia’s fourth-to-last ACC series of the year.
First pitch between the Cavaliers and Fighting Irish is scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday at Davenport Field.