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A look at the upcoming Virginia baseball season

The No. 5 Cavaliers are poised for a successful spring campaign as they look to secure a bid in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017

<p>Virginia returns junior infielder Zack Gelof who will be a strong force for the Cavaliers on the corner of the diamond.</p>

Virginia returns junior infielder Zack Gelof who will be a strong force for the Cavaliers on the corner of the diamond.

Virginia baseball's  50-game schedule for the upcoming season includes 29 home games, 21 away games and 36 games against ACC opponents. The ACC conference is particularly strong this year, with six teams — Louisville, Florida State, Miami, Duke, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest — ranked in either the Baseball America or D1Baseball preseason polls. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, enter the season as the No. 5 team in the country, with a number of key players returning to the roster in 2021. 

Before the 2020 season was cut short due to COVID-19, Virginia was well on its way to an explosive spring performance. The Cavaliers were 14-4 and opened ACC play with a series of wins against then-No. 7 NC State, handing the Wolfpack their first losses of the season. In the short spring campaign, Virginia proved its talent at the plate, ranking seventh in the nation in scoring, 10th in home runs and 11th in on-base percentage. And while the Cavaliers struggled on the mound in 2018 and 2019, the pitching staff put on strong performances in 2020, ranking 69th nationally with a 3.39 ERA. Virginia returns to the diamond this spring bolstered by players granted an additional year of eligibility by the NCAA, as well as a class of 11 new players with impressive accolades. With a deep roster, the Cavaliers set their sights on their first tournament berth since 2017. 

Key matchup

No. 6 Louisville, April 16-18

Ranked sixth in the preseason USA Today Sports coaches poll, the Cardinals may pose the largest threat to Virginia. Last year, the Cardinals were ranked No. 1 in the country heading into the season after the team traveled to Ohama for the College World Series semifinals in 2019. Like Virginia, Louisville will benefit from the NCAA decision to grant players an additional year of eligibility. Although the Cardinals lost a pair of first-round picks, several players return this season for another chance at a national title. All but two pitchers will be back in rotation this spring, including junior left-hander Michael Kirian, who recorded a 0.00 ERA and six saves in 2020, as well as an impressive 11-1 strikeout to walk ratio in the shortened season. Also coming out of the bullpen is junior right-hander Glenn Albanese, a strong, powerful pitcher who has worked his way back following Tommy John surgery in 2018. This fall he consistently hit the mid-90s with his fastball, comfortably finding the zone and mixing in a changeup. At the same time, the Cardinals have a powerhouse lineup stacked with hard-hitters from top to bottom. Junior infielder Lucas Dunn, for example, batted over .300 in his first two seasons at Louisville, earning a spot on Team USA in 2019. Similarly, junior outfielder Luke Brown will likely start in center field this season after batting .328 in 2020 and leading the team with 11 steals as a junior college transfer. The Cavaliers will need a strong bullpen to control the Cardinals at the plate, find an offensive spark early on in the game and carry that momentum through the late innings to emerge victorious. As both teams have a powerhouse batting lineup, the bullpen may also need to rely on its depth to play through a high-scoring matchup.

Player to watch

Zack Gelof

Although he missed playing time during the fall due to injury, junior third-baseman Zack Gelof was a major contributor in the Cavalier lineup in 2020. The right-hander heralded an impressive .349 batting average that included six doubles, two triples, five home runs and 18 RBI. Gelof also led the ACC with 47 total bases, a .746 slugging percentage and 24 runs scored. The third-baseman has taken control of the hot corner for Virginia, starting every game during his freshman and sophomore seasons. In 2020 Gelof was named the third-best third-baseman in D1Baseball’s Top 30 Power Rankings, and this season he is a First Team Preseason All-American selection by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. Returning as a junior, Gelof will be at the top of his game as a power hitter and strong force on the corner of the diamond. As the Cavaliers face top-ranked teams, including a set of competitive ACC rivals, Gelof is poised for another great season — perhaps his best yet. 

Key to the season

Bringing the heat

Virginia’s success will rely on its strength on the mound as it works through a difficult schedule. Senior left-hander Andrew Abbott is catching fire and will be a major weapon this spring, returning for another year after going undrafted in 2020. The lefty was ranked No. 7 last season in D1Baseball’s Top 50 relief pitchers in college baseball. With a 1.35 ERA, Abbott was the fifth-lowest among ACC relievers with 10 or more innings pitched, striking out 21 batters and allowing just two runs in 13.1 innings. In the fall, however, Abbott transitioned into a starter for the Cavaliers. A killer curveball and highly effective changeup will serve him well as he enters the season ranked No. 64 on the NCAA’s Top 150 college prospects. 

“He’s still a high fastball guy, uses that with the breaking ball, but for him to start, he was going to have to learn how to be more efficient, and come to use that changeup more often,” Coach Brian O’Connor said in a statement to NCAA News. “So I’m excited where he’s at; obviously he has more experience than anybody on our pitching staff. I feel like he’s got an edge to him, got something to prove. So I do envision him starting.”

While Gelof and Abbott are two names to look out for as the season gets underway, a number of other Cavaliers are sure to impress in 2021. Graduate student catcher Logan Michaels is a veteran behind the plate with the experience necessary to handle the pitching staff — producing pop times around 2.00 seconds this fall with spot-on accuracy — and batted .311 in 2019 and .316 in 2020. Sophomore outfielder Chris Newell is a rising star in the outfield and brings power at the plate, recording four homers, 20 RBI and eight steals last spring. And junior infielder Nic Kent, who will compete with sophomore infielder Max Cotier for the starting shortstop position, has the instincts to lead Virginia defensively and is a strong presence at the plate. With all the returning talent, the 11 newcomers will need to step up and prove themselves to get playing time this spring. True freshman Channing Austin may make his way into the rotation as he narrows his focus to pitching, touting a promising slider and working up his speed. Freshman Kyle Teel was named the 2020 New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year before making his way to Virginia, and freshman Jake Gelof may also see playing time as he joins his older brother on the diamond.  

The Cavaliers are scheduled to open the season on their home field at Disharoon Park on Friday against the University of Connecticut. Virginia is heavily favored in the matchup, and the series will be an opportunity to nail down a starting lineup and see how the rest of the season may play out. Game time is set for 3 p.m. and will be broadcast on the ACC Network.