Even with his most talent-rich and experienced teams, Virginia coach Brian O'Connor would be absolutely ecstatic with a 43-8 overall record entering the final regular season series of the year.
Throw in the fact the Cavaliers were expected to have somewhat of a rebuilding campaign this spring, not ranked to start the season, and you have an extra special situation, one that O'Connor just continues to soak in as his club faces the power-packed North Carolina Tar Heels this weekend.
"I certainly would've taken it [43-8 record back in February]", O'Connor said. "When you have a talented and experienced team, you know, anyone would take 43-8. With this team, I knew we had some really good talent, and some athletic guys. However, I just didn't know how consistent our pitching staff would be because the group lacked so much experience coming into the year."
Though the Cavaliers are known more for their offensive abilities, the pitching staff, as unorthodox as it might be, has been rather solid throughout the spring. The starting rotation of left-handed pitchers Scott Silverstein and freshman Brandon Waddell have performed at a high level at times, while right-handed two-way player Nick Howard has provided a boost both on the mound and at the plate. Silverstein is a 90-plus arm, Waddell can touch 90, and Howard can get up to 92-93.
Mike Papi and the UVA offense have taken pressure off the pitching staff. (UVA photo)
Most interesting about this Virginia staff as it readies for the postseason run is just the sheer number of innings the starting pitchers have thrown. Unlike most teams, who have their starters go seven, eight, or even nine innings each time out, O'Connor has setup his staff in different fashion, moving his most valuable arms to the back-end of the bullpen.
That lends some interesting numbers. For instance, Silverstein, Waddell and Howard have earned-run averages of 3.21, 3.88 and 3.43, respectively, and all three have thrown under 70 innings in 12 starts. By comparison, even North Carolina, which heavily uses its bullpen, has a pair of starting pitchers -- Kent Emanuel and Benton Moss -- who have each thrown 70 or more innings, with Emanuel having thrown 97 2/3 innings. Hobbs Johnson only has 58 2/3 innings of work, but also was injured earlier this spring.
It's an intriguing approach for the Cavaliers, but one that certainly works.
"Fortunately, we made a decision right out of the gate to put some guys in different roles from a pitching standpoint. Putting Kyle Crockett down there in the bullpen, along with Whit Mayberry and Austin Young, really solidified things," he said. "You're talking about putting some experience down there, and right away, it worked. That group of relievers have been consistent all-year long.
"You know, what's happened is that I haven't been afraid to go to our bullpen in the fifth and sixth innings. With the depth and quality arms we have out there, it's good to do," he continued. "There are some years where I'd have some of our guys pitch through trouble. But with this group, I'm fine with five or six innings from the starters because I'm so confident in the bullpen's ability to take care of business."
The numbers tallied by the bullpen are impressive. Left-handed pitcher Kyle Crockett, who mimics Danny Hultzen in his delivery, has a fastball that can get above 90, and has a 1.26 ERA with 10 saves in 23 appearances. Meanwhile, Mayberry has made 19 appearances and has a 1.66 ERA in 38 innings, while right-hander Austin Young is another 90-plus arm who's having a good year, sitting with an 0.90 ERA in 23 appearances and 30 innings of work.
With such a heavy emphasis on the bullpen and the starting pitchers having a tendency to not go more than five or six innings, some would call that a potential concern as the Cavaliers ready for the NCAA postseason, likely as one of the top eight national seeds. But O'Connor doesn't really view his situation in that regard.
"I would categorize our starting pitching is just a little bit unpredictable. But, they've still allowed us to win games, we just haven't gone out there and dominated games from a starting pitching standpoint," he said. "The last time we really dominated things from a starting pitching standpoint was against Florida State a few weeks ago.
"With that said, we're getting a couple of quality starts each weekend, the bullpen is doing their job, and the offense has been very good. I'd say it's a good formula."
The Cavaliers will carry one of the nation's premier offensive lineups into the postseason in a couple of weeks. Though the bullpen has garnered plenty of headlines, the offense might just be the story of the year for O'Connor's club, improving from .296 last season to an impressive .317 mark in 2013.
Virginia has a very versatile lineup with a unique set of abilities. For instance, outfielder Mike Papi has made significant strides from last season, staying healthy, and is hitting a team-best .411 with five homers and 47 RBIs, along with an incredible .547 on-base percentage. Meanwhile, fellow outfielders Derek Fisher and Brandon Downes also are having impressive campaigns.
Fisher's solid campaign isn't exactly a surprise. A big-time prospect for the 2014 MLB draft, the versatile outfielder is hitting .311 with seven homers and 42 RBIs. Meanwhile, Downes has taken a big step forward, hitting .328 with 17 doubles, seven homers and 52 RBIs, along with a .407 OBP. The Cavaliers also are excited about what shortstop Brandon Cogswell can do in the postseason, though, for now, he's missing time because of a broken middle finger.
"The big thing about Mike is that he's very consistent and plays really hard. He plays with a lot of energy, he's clutch for us, and that's something that has really been a big boost for us," he said. "I think Downes has gotten a lot better, as he's a really tough hitter in the four hole, while two-way player Nick Howard has really developed into a pretty good hitter."
What once was considered a potential rebuilding year could result in another College World Series appearance, and potentially the program's first national title.
Credit Virginia's unorthodox balance.
Pitching prowess: Clemson's Gossett becomes elite
Clemson's workhorse sophomore right-handed pitcher has evolved into an elite, front-line ace for one of the nation's hottest teams with the NCAA postseason looming.
That, of course, is Daniel Gossett.
Daniel Gossett has evolved into a more complete pitcher this season. (Clemson photo)
Gossett is no stranger to receiving mega accolades. He was one of the nation's elite arms out of high school, ranked No. 127 nationally as a high school senior with a fastball up to 94. But after experiencing some good and bad times as a typical freshman last season, Gossett has made significant strides this spring, and frankly, has evolved into an elite pitcher in under-the-radar fashion.
"He has been very consistent for us throughout the year," Clemson pitching coach Dan Pepicelli said. "The biggest thing for him has been being able to adapt to the way this game works at this level. Last year, like a typical freshman, he kind of thought he could just blow it through guys at times. This year, though, he has been throwing his fastball on more of a downhill plane."
It's impressive to breakdown the difference between Gossett's freshman and sophomore campaigns. Last year, the righty had a 4.32 ERA in 19 appearances (10 starts), along with 87 strikeouts and 39 walks. But this spring, Gossett enters the final weekend of the regular season against Florida State with a 2.36 ERA in 80 innings of work, along with 80 strikeouts and 28 walks.
"He really has shaken off a lot of mechanical things from his freshman campaign," Pepicelli said. "I've seen nothing but improvement out of him. He's really good, and he's trending toward being a very consistent pitcher for us. He's not perfect, but he works at it and is just a horse for us. He understands what it takes to be a great pitcher, and he's always trying to find that perfect way to find that next level."
Gossett, who likely had one of his best starts last weekend against Georgia Southern, striking out 12 in just 7 1/3 innings, continues to improve his overall profile as not only as a college ace pitcher, but also as a prospect. He stands at 6-foot, 180 pounds, but possesses a very strong arm.
From a stuff standpoint this spring, Gossett has consistently been 90-92 with his fastball, and even higher at times, on a downhill plane. He also has added a changeup that continues to develop as a potentially above-average pitch at 78-89 mph, while his slider is a definite swing-and-miss pitch at this point.
"That changeup is his No. 3 pitch and he uses it enough for it to be a viable offering. I think the change is an average pitch for him, but being able to use it makes his other offerings above-average pitches," Pepicelli said. "That changeup is one of those pitches that's used just enough to be effective, where teams just can't go up there and sit on that pitch.
"That slider is very good. When he throws it the right way, it's got really, really good depth and it has an aggressive downhill approach," he continued. "Sometimes that slider will have a little more sweep on it, sometimes it's a little later, and sometimes it's more of a cutter variety. It's a pitch that typically is sharp with late action."
Clemson's stock is climbing at precisely the right time, thanks in large part to the rise of the now elite right-handed pitcher.
Get acquainted with Daniel Gossett. He'll be a name to remember the next couple of weeks.
Postseason implications: Five teams to watch
Auburn: Though the Tigers have an RPI of 35, they also have a conference record of 11-16 entering this weekend's home series against Arkansas. AU would likely put itself on the good side of the bubble with a series win over Arkansas. However, a series loss to the Razorbacks could mean a strong run in Hoover, Ala., will be needed.
Alabama: Though not anywhere near as dire straits as perhaps AU and Kentucky, the Crimson Tide needs to get at least one game this weekend against Vanderbilt to feel very good about its situation moving forward. The Tide has an RPI of 40 with nine wins against RPI Top 50 teams. 'Bama should feel OK, but not great.
Miami (Fla.): Could the perennial power Hurricanes actually miss the NCAA postseason? It's certainly possible. The Hurricanes have an RPI of 18, but are just 12-15 in the ACC. Chances are pretty good the 'Canes get into the field of 64 no matter what happens this weekend, but a home series win over Georgia Tech this weekend certainly would make head coach Jim Morris sleep better at night.
Cal Poly: The Mustangs are in pretty good shape to make the NCAA postseason right now, but could use a series win over Cal State Northridge (and Pacific to end the regular season) to solidify their situation. The Mustangs have an RPI of 29 with a 14-12 mark vs. RPI Top 100 clubs.
Kentucky: There might not be a bubble team more in need of wins this weekend than the Wildcats. Forget about the fact the Wildcats have an RPI of 28 with 13 wins vs. RPI Top 50 clubs. UK is a team with a 10-17 SEC record right now. UK desperately needs a road series win over Missouri this weekend to feel good potentially going into the SEC tournament.
Impact series to watch
20 Ole Miss at 3 LSU: The Tigers will rest ace right-handed pitcher Aaron Nola this weekend, but that doesn't make this series any less important, especially for the Rebels, who hope to improve their postseason resume. Ole Miss needs a huge weekend from right-handed starting pitchers Bobby Wahl (1.43) and Mike Mayers (2.87), while Sam Smith in the No. 3 starting spot is a key cog as well. -- THE PICK: LSU
7 Oregon State at 11 Oregon: Boy, it really doesn't get any bigger than this on the national stage, and it certainly doesn't get any bigger in the State of Oregon. The Beavers and Ducks each possess two of the nation's elite freshmen pitchers, and the two will be showcased this weekend in Eugene. OSU's Andrew Moore is 10-1 with a 1.48 ERA in 85 innings, along with 46 strikeouts and 20 walks, while UO's Cole Irvine is 10-2 with a 2.64 ERA in 92 innings, along with 47 strikeouts and 19 walks. -- THE PICK: Oregon State
6 Virginia at 2 North Carolina: This series got dampened a little bit by North Carolina's series loss to Georgia Tech last weekend. However, it still has huge implications in the Atlantic Coast Conference with the Cavaliers hoping to add yet another marquee series win to their resume. Virginia's Mike Papi is having a massive year at the plate, while for the Tar Heels, the return of freshman outfielder Skye Bolt is huge. Bolt returns from an injury hitting .392 with 10 doubles, two triples, six homers and 41 RBIs. -- THE PICK: North Carolina
UC Irvine at 4 Cal State Fullerton: The Titans have been incredibly consistent this spring, and once again, they'll lean on outstanding freshmen pitchers Thomas Eshelman and Justin Garza. Eshelman and Garza have earned-run averages of 1.42 and 2.12, respectively. As for the Anteaters, keep an eye on big-time prospect, right-handed pitcher Andrew Thurman, who has a 2.98 ERA in 84 2/3 innings. He also has struck out 72 and walked 14, while teams are hitting him at a .244 clip. -- THE PICK: Cal State Fullerton
16 Clemson and 8 Florida State: Fresh off a huge road series win over North Carolina State, the Seminoles hope to solidify their national seed this weekend against the Tigers. While the Seminoles are very pleased with the rotation of Luke Weaver, Brandon Leibrandt and Scott Sitz with the postseason looming, the Tigers love right-handed sophomore Daniel Gossett, and rely on a couple of young arms in Matthew Crownover (1.90) and Zack Erwin (2.88), while Clate Schmidt is expected to return to the bullpen after missing last weekend because of a hand injury. -- THE PICK: Florida State
23 Pittsburgh at 10 Louisville: This series is absolutely huge for both teams with Pitt holding on to a one game lead in the Big East standings. However, it's even more important for the Panthers, who would very much punch their ticket to the NCAA postseason with a series win over the Cardinals. Keep an eye on Pitt starting pitchers Ethan Mildren (2.17) and Matt Wotherspoon (3.05), who have each had huge campaigns. Meanwhile, right-handed pitcher Jeff Thompson has been the dominant starting pitcher we expected throughout the entire spring. -- THE PICK: Louisville
14 South Carolina at 21 Mississippi State: The Gamecocks are in good shape for an NCAA Regional host site at this point, but a bad showing in Starkville, Miss., this weekend could turn the tide moving into next week's Southeastern Conference tournament. The Gamecocks have gotten good starts from Nolan Belcher and others, while closer Tyler Webb has been the real key. Webb has appeared in 23 games and has a 0.56 ERA in 32 1/3 innings of work. For the Bulldogs, guys like Hunter Renfroe (.390/15/51) and Adam Frazier (.330/0/26) must have strong weekends. -- THE PICK: South Carolina
15 Indiana at Ohio State: The Buckeyes squandered an opportunity to rack up some big-time wins last weekend, but have a chance for redemption this weekend against the Hoosiers. For the Hoosiers, Scott Donley, Kyle Schwarber and Dustin DeMuth are having massive campaigns. Donley is hitting .361 with four homers and 49 RBIs, Schwarber is hitting .391 with 13 homers and 41 RBIs, and DeMuth is hitting .417 with four homers and 34 RBIs. -- THE PICK: Indiana
24 Oklahoma at Kansas State: The Wildcats are very much in good shape to wrap up a Big 12 Conference regular season title, but would love nothing more than to also potentially wrap up an NCAA Regional host site this weekend with a series win over the Sooners. Ross Kivett, Jared King and others are having impressive offensive campaigns, while the big key moving into the postseason is the pitching staff. For the Sooners, right-hander Jonathan Gray (1.43) and left-hander Dillon Overton (2.87) need to have good starts this weekend. -- THE PICK: Kansas State
Troy at 18 South Alabama: It was thought last weekend's series between USA and Louisiana-Lafayette would determine the Sun Belt regular season champion. However, that trophy actually will be handed out this weekend with the Jaguars up a full game. Keep an eye on Troy's impressive crop of sluggers, including third baseman Logan Pierce and outfielder Danny Collins, who are hitting .365 and .355, respectively. -- The Pick: South Alabama