After reaching its 16th NCAA Tournament all-time, including its 13th straight in 2016, the Virginia baseball team will open its 14th season under the direction of coach Brian O’Connor this weekend. The Hoos begin the season on Friday, Feb. 17 at the Charleston Crab House Shootout in Charleston, SC, against Liberty.
As is so often the case in college baseball, Virginia enters the season with absolutes in some positions and uncertainty in others. The Hoos start the year with five or six potential weekend starters and there will be new everyday positions players at short stop, third base, and catcher.
“In 2014 and 2015, especially on the mound, there were a lot of guys returning and you kind of knew what roles guys would be in and that’s not the case this year,” O’Connor said. “That will be fun and I’m looking forward to figuring it out through the first half of the season.”
When O’Connor and his tandem of Associate Head Coach Kevin McMullen and pitching coach Karl Kuhn took the reins in Charlottesville 14 years ago, the idea of defining pitching roles or defensive and offensive lineups admittedly created some impatience.
That’s one of the ways O’Connor says he has changed in 14 years.
“I feel like I’ve evolved to be a lot calmer and patient,” O’Connor said. “I think patience in coaching and player development, especially in this sport, is vital. I’ll tell you my first, and I speak for our entire staff here because Kevin and Karl have been here with me for fourteen years as well, there maybe wasn’t as much patience. I feel like I’ve calmed down and relaxed more and I feel like that has benefited our team.”
Part of the impatience came from the fact that O’Connor was in his first head coaching job and the staff was learning how to coach together. O’Connor says another factor was that these three desperately wanted success for their players, the program, and for each other.
“I think there was an urgency to prove ourselves and also, too, from the patient standpoint, we wanted everything right away and we put a lot of pressure on our players at key times,” O’Connor said. “I learned over the years that I don’t believe that is the way to ultimately earn championships. It was more, probably because we wanted it so bad that it could have negatively rubbed off on guys. Those are things I think we learn from experience and how you handle yourself in the dugout when situations happen, how you handle yourself from game to game and series to series is really important because you’re tested. “
The pressure to prove themselves is no longer an issue.
With a national title in 2015, four College World series trips since 2009, 13 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, nine super regionals, and 331 wins this decade, the most in college baseball, the Hoos have proven plenty.
Another change for O’Connor and the staff is a greater comfort level to experiment with different lineups and batting orders and not feel as if they have to have all of the answers on opening day. That’s good because 2017 will bring ongoing tweaking of the lineups for the foreseeable future as O’Connor and company “figure the team out.”
“Maybe a younger time for me, it may have been, ‘Well, this guy is going to be our starting shortstop and this guy’s going to be our third baseman.’ You don’t know what’s going to happen when you handle it that way,” O’Connor said. “I’ve kind of learned over the years, the best way to handle these kinds of situations, and hopefully it’s been efficient to us.”
Confidence to be patient, confidence in the process, and confidence in the staff allows the club to experiment and take some losses early on to get it right for the postseason. Sometimes the changes are due to attrition and sometimes its circumstances like injures or weather as was the case during UVA’s title run in 2015.
“When we won it all, where did we finish in the regular season that year – seventh or something like that?” O’Connor said. “If you go absolutely crazy and blow your top all the time to make the kids feel this pressure, then you never put yourself in an opportunity to accomplish what we did. “
What makes 2017’s potential exciting for the coaches is that there are significant options on the mound and in the field.
“From a position player standpoint we have an opportunity to go with some different lineups and try some different things early on and keep more guys in the mix.” O’Connor said.
The higher level of experience for this year’s team is certainly in the field.
The right side of the infield will be manned by two All-American candidates and two of the top four hitters in the batting order with slugger Pavin Smith at first and slick-fielding Ernie Clement at second. Clement simply finished third in the ACC in hits and runs and 14th in batting last spring.
In addition to his weekend starting role on the mound, Adam Haseley likely will serve as Virginia’s centerfielder. Haseley hit .304 in 2016 and was second on the club with 31 extra base hits.
Look for Jake McCarthy to join Haseley in the outfield in left after coming off an injury shortened 2016 season. McCarthy played in just six games after tearing ligaments in his big toe. Though the data is limited with a small sample size, he hit .368 and had an on-base-percentage of .429 as a freshman. He is expected to add additional potency to an already strong batting order.
Cameron Simmons rounds out the probable starting three in the outfield. As a rookie, he played in 50 games last year with 44 starts. After a slow start at plate, he found his stride in late April batting .319 (23 for 72) with eight doubles in the Hoos’ last 19 games. Junior Charlie Cody (22 starts in 2016) and freshman Jalen Harrison, a Rawlings and Perfect Game Honorable Mention All-American last year in high school where he was a three-sport standout, will also be in the mix for playing time.
Fifth-year senior Robbie Coman – the team’s starting catcher in 2015 – returns after missing all of last season following Tommy John surgery. Coman is still building up his endurance and O’Connor suggested he may not be ready to go two full games on a weekend to start the season. But his offense and his leadership will keep Coman in the lineup.
Battling for playing time behind the plate will be sophomore Cameron Comer, who played in eight games off bench in 2016, reaching base in each of his first five plate appearances. Junior college transfer Caleb Knight brings some solid bona fides from Connors State (OK) where he was named to the 2016 American Baseball Coaches’ Association/Rawlings Gold Glove Team. He started 57 of 57 games for the Cowboys, recording a .997 fielding percentage while committing just one error. Knight added 45 assists and seven pickoffs, and threw out 19 of 25 runners trying to steal. He hit .404 with 10 doubles, 12 home runs, and 67 RBIs.
Freshmen Drew Blakely and Will Allocca add additional depth to Virginia’s catching roster.
With the departure of shortstop Danny Pinero (ninth round selection Detroit Tigers 2016 MLB Draft), the Cavaliers are auditioning several candidates to fill the void. Junior Justin Novak has the inside track, but sure-handed freshman Cayman Richardson will be an option as well.
Look for left-handed swinging sophomores Andy Weber and Nate Eikhoff to compete to take over at third if Novak, last season’s primary third baseman, shifts to short.
O’Connor says he likes having guys to move around in practice to get different looks: “That challenges us as coaches and I think that makes it really exciting for us.”
While the crop of position players has experience and is expected to be solid offensively and with the glove, the raw talent and greater opportunity to see huge strides comes on the pitching side.
A 2016 Baseball America and NCBWA All-American, Haseley’s weekend slot is not yet certain because he also Virginia’s centerfielder, but make no mistake, he will be the ace of the weekend crew entering the season. One of three finalists for John Olerud Two-Way Player Award, Haseley ranked second in the ACC and ninth nationally in ERA (1.73), second in the league in opponent batting average (.194), and 20th in the NCAA in WHIP (0.96).
As a true freshman, Daniel Lynch battled at times last season in his 13 appearances (nine starts). He worked 41 innings, recording a 1-3 record and 5.49 ERA. This season the staff is looking for higher levels of consistency. With Lynch becoming stronger and more physical over the offseason, along with his experience and maturation, look for the sophomore to make big strides.
One freshman who has a chance to break into the rotation is three-sport athlete Noah Murdock. Drafted in the 38th round of 2016 MLB Draft by the Washington Nationals, he was also named a 2016 Rawlings and Perfect Game All-American.
Two additions to the Cavalier rotation that were not available last season are not new to the team but are returning after a one-year Tommy John surgery layoff.
Everyone is looking forward to unveiling power hurler Evan Sperling after he had surgery in the fall of his senior year in high school. He was slowed further when a knee injury forced him to have a second operation. But the UVA staff is eager for the 6’6” right-hander’s debut.
“I think the sky’s the limit for this kid,” O’Connor said. “He’s pretty much 91 to 94 (mph). He’ll flash some 95, 96. He throws with a good downward plane. He’s super talented. He just hasn’t gotten a college out yet.”
Derek Casey had a promising start to his freshman season in 2015, posting a 4-1 with a 3.06 ERA in 10 appearances, including six midweek starts. His last game came on April 21 against Longwood due to an elbow injury. After being shut down in the summer to heal, Casey has had a full fall and O’Connor says he’s “right on track.”
“[Casey] is pitching well; he’s healthy,” O’Connor said. “He’s looking good and strong.”
From the bullpen, Alec Bettinger begins his senior season with experience as both a starter (18 career starts/8 in 2016) and a reliever where he finished six in the ACC last year with seven saves. Right-hander Tommy Doyle also spent time in the starting rotation and operated out of the bullpen; he probably will emerge as UVA’s closer. Seniors Jack Roberts, Tyler Shambora (5-1, 3.22), and southpaw junior Bennett Sousa combined for an 8-1 record over 94.2 innings in 55 relief appearances. The trio will be counted on for heavy backend innings early in 2017 as the inexperienced crew of starters get their feet wet in college play.
Some coaches might see all of the uncertainty, especially on the mound as a real challenge. O’Connor sees it as fun.
“Some years you go into preseason you say this is our starting rotation,” O’Connor said. “This is one of those years like many, you can’t have a veteran team or all the guys returning every year and it creates excitement as we try to and figure it out.”