Virginia is giving the college baseball community a crash course on dealing with high expectations.
So often, teams enter the season ranked No. 1 in the country, only to flounder with those lofty expectations becoming too much to handle throughout the spring. Virginia could've been one of those teams. The Cavaliers welcomed back several key players and highly touted prospects this season, and began the year atop the Perfect Game College Top 25 rankings. The Cavaliers were so confident they were set for such a strong season, head coach Brian O'Connor, with a huge smile, told me “We've got a chance to be good. Really good.”, way back in October.
The ultimate goal for this Virginia club is simple: the College World Series. No ands or buts about it, not getting to Omaha this June would be considered a disappointment for this program. And they're perfectly fine with that realization, only leading them to strive for more no matter the situation.
Take the current state of the team as a prime example. The Cavaliers are a ridiculously good 35-7 overall, 16-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and are well-positioned to be a top-eight national seed in the NCAA postseason. Yet, O'Connor is making it clear that his team has a long way to go to meet their full potential. The pitching staff and defense are there, but the offense, which is hitting .277 overall, is capable of so much more. O'Connor knows that, Virginia's opponents know that.
“For us, it's been pretty exciting. We're pitching great and playing tremendous defense. We're being productive enough offensively to win, but with the margin for error so small, it makes things interesting,” O'Connor said. “It's not easy to handle high expectations, but we've chosen to handle them straight on. We feel like we have a really good club, folks on the outside think we have a good club, the problem is when expectations are this high and you're not doing everything offensively, it can get frustrating. Our guys have embraced the approach that we always have something to prove each weekend.”
The Cavaliers are looking to make a statement offensively this weekend against No. 4 Florida State. It's been an interesting year for this lineup. Shortstop turned second baseman Branden Cogswell is hitting .301, but guys like Joe McCarthy (.298), Mike Papi (.296) and even Nick Howard (.248) were expected to hit for much higher batting averages. There's also outfielder Derek Fisher, who's hitting .333, but just returned earlier this week from a hamate bone injury. He came back with a vengeance, smacking a pair of homers in two midweek contests.
If the Cavaliers want to reach their full potential, getting outfielder Brandon Downes consistent and back on track is the key. Downes was a Preseason All-American and is an exceptional athlete, but has yet to show his full offensive potential this spring, hitting just .239 with a .349 on-base percentage. The silver lining with Downes is he's second on the team in homers and O'Connor feels like his time is nearing.
Some of Virginia's offensive numbers are surprising. For instance, the Cavaliers scored 10 runs in three games against North Carolina last weekend, while previously, they scored just five runs against Clemson, eight runs against Pittsburgh and seven runs against Duke. Amazingly, Virginia won all four of those series.
“The thing with Downes is that he's just been inconsistent. His at-bats have just kind of come and gone, but he's too athletic and physical for that to hold him back. I think he'll get it going,” O'Connor said. “I think as a whole, the offense has been a bit more consistent the past couple of weeks. Collectively, as a whole, last year we came out hot offensively, and that really set the tone for the season. This year, we came out cold, and it's been tough to shake off some of the rustiness.”
While the offense could still use some tweaks and improvements, the Cavaliers are here today with such a good record primarily because of their pitching staff, which enters the weekend with one of the nation's best earned-run averages of 2.03.
Sophomore lefthanded pitcher Brandon Waddell, who served as the Friday starter last season, is shining as the Sunday starter with a 2.93 ERA in 61 1/3 innings, along with good overall stuff and a fastball that can get up to 91-92 at times. Meanwhile, sophomore righthanded pitcher Josh Sborz might not have the firmest stuff all the time, but he's having a good year with a 2.81 ERA and has a fastball that sits anywhere from 89-94. The biggest key to this pitching staff has been the emergency of lefthanded pitcher Nathan Kirby. Kirby had a surprisingly high 6.19 ERA in 23 appearances last season, but took a giant leap forward in the fall and is translating that into a dominant sophomore season with a 1.36 ERA in 66 1/3 innings, along with 73 strikeouts and 15 walks, as well as very good overall stuff with an explosive fastball up to 94 and crisp overall stuff.
“This pitching staff has been a whole lot of fun to watch. We've gotten a lot of quality starts and I can't really pinpoint many situations where we haven't gotten good starts,” he said. “Kirby is doing just great for us. His velocity is holding and he's showing great poise on the mound. He's got a good fastball and breaking stuff, and he's just been able to go out there and repeat it time after time. It's pretty impressive.
“You know, Sborz has pitched himself into some trouble, but also has pitched himself out of trouble at times. He's got good stuff and he finds a way to make the pitches,” he continued. “I think the real shot in the arm for this club came earlier this week with the return of [RHP] Artie Lewicki. He was electric, 89-94 mph with his fastball, with a good breaking ball, and we were able to get him up to 80 pitches. We're not sure how we're going to use him moving forward, but he's going to help us big-time.”
Lewicki throwing at an elite level and in the mix down the stretch makes the Cavaliers' pitching staff even more filthy. Beyond the starting pitching, the bullpen continues to shine. Freshman righthanded pitcher Connor Jones is meeting expectations with a 1.07 ERA in 16 appearances and elite stuff with a fastball 90-94 mph with heavy sink, along with a good slider and changeup, while two-way star Nick Howard, who was in the starting rotation last season, has excelled in the closer role with fantastic numbers, a 1.29 ERA and 13 saves in 21 innings. Howard also has a mean streak and flashes an explosive mid-90s fastball with life.
“Connor is the type of guy who can go out there and just be dominant for three innings or less. He really takes the lead for us out of the bullpen,” he said. “Nick has fallen in love with the closer role, he loves it. There aren't many teams in college baseball with elite bullpens, and the quality of pitching you have in your bullpen, especially now, is the ultimate difference maker.”
Howard and Jones could very well be the difference makers this weekend when the Cavaliers travel to Tallahassee, Fla., to battle the Seminoles.
“Florida State is a huge challenge for us, but I think it's coming at the right time,” he said. “This is the kind of club and environment you want to play in down the stretch as you get ready for the NCAA postseason. You have to play in this type of series the way you're going to play in the postseason. It just prepares you.”
As a whole, the Cavaliers are giving the blueprint for handling high expectations.
SERIES TO WATCH
No. 1 Virginia at No. 4 Florida State: Our featured series of the weekend, it doesn't get much better than two top five teams going at it, and we'll be there to provide detailed coverage. Virginia has one of the top lefthanded sophomore pitchers in the land in Nathan Kirby, who has been outstanding this spring, while Nick Howard is a presence out of the bullpen with a fastball in the mid-90s and a hard-nosed attitude. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers welcomed back outfielder Derek Fisher, who has hit a pair of homers since his return earlier this week. For the Seminoles, power-hitting outfielder DJ Stewart hopes to have a strong weekend, while Bryant Holtmann will start the series finale with a 3.24 ERA in 33 1/3 innings, along with 28 strikeouts and 10 walks. FSU will again be without lefthanded pitcher Brandon Leibrandt, who remains out because of a severe bone bruise
THE PICK: Virginia
No. 14 Oregon at No. 5 Oregon State: The Ducks have fought through some nasty injuries this season and accumulated some nice wins and a good overall record. Now, they have the tough chore of getting a series win over rival Oregon State without talented lefthanded pitcher Matt Krook, who will miss the remainder of the season because of Tommy John surgery. That makes lefthanded pitcher Tommy Thorpe and Jeff Gold that more important. Thorpe is having another stellar season with a 2.26 ERA, while Gold is an unblemished 9-0 with a 2.54 ERA. For the Beavers, outfielder Michael Conforto continues to have a productive, and not surprising, junior campaign, while senior lefthanded pitcher Ben Wetzler is flourishing with an 0.68 ERA in 53 innings, along with 38 strikeouts and 20 walks.
THE PICK: Oregon State
No. 8 Alabama at No. 10 South Carolina: Mitch Gaspard's Crimson Tide were expected to be good with a chance to host an NCAA Regional this spring, but to be in position to possibly win the Southeastern Conference regular season title is a bit surprising. The Tide and Gamecocks butt heads this weekend with potentially a national seed on the line. Alabama will enter the weekend without righthanded pitcher and No. 3 starting pitcher Jon Keller, who will miss the series because of team rules violations, but will rejoin the club on Monday. With that said, 'Bama is confident righthanded pitcher Spencer Turnbull will start the weekend on a positive note. Turnbull has a fastball in the mid-90s, and his secondary stuff has been crisper this spring. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks have been banged up the past few weeks. Catcher Grayson Greiner continues to battle through injuries, while outfielder Connor Bright and second baseman Max Schrock remain out. It's imperative the Gamecocks get good starts from Jordan Montgomery, Jack Wynkoop and Wil Crowe.
THE PICK: South Carolina
No. 21 Oklahoma State at No. 11 Texas: Josh Holliday, as one opposing coach put it, “Is doing what we kind of expected him to do”, this season for the Cowboys. OSU was expected to field a solid club this spring, but wasn't expected to win the conference. That now looks like a distinct possibility, especially if they can hit the road this weekend and take a series from the Longhorns. Zach Fish (.327) and Gage Green (.313) are consistent hitters, with Fish being a legitimate power threat, while OSU ace pitcher Jon Perrin has a 2.11 ERA in 59 2/3 innings of work. UT has a sizable advantage from a pitching depth standpoint with Parker French, Dillon Peters and Nathan Thornhill leading the starting rotation, while righthanded pitcher John Curtiss is gaining some helium with a loose arm and fastball up to 93-94 mph.
THE PICK: Texas
No. 15 Ole Miss at No. 18 Kentucky: The Rebels and Wildcats are in the thick of the NCAA Regional host race, and this series could very well decide which team hosts in the postseason. The Rebs are coming off a tough home series loss to LSU, but are very confident with righthanded pitcher Chris Ellis on the mound. Ellis was up to 94-95 mph with his fastball last weekend against the Tigers, and possesses a low-80s changeup and mid-to-upper 70s curveball. For the Wildcats, it's another weekend of a depleted weekend rotation, though, I had a chance to see young lefthanded pitcher Dylan Dwyer against Texas A&M last weekend. Dwyer only sits 83-84 with his fastball, but has good secondary stuff, especially his curveball. Meanwhile, two-way star A.J. Reed remains atop the National Player of the Year race with a .375 batting average, 12 doubles, 16 homers and 55 RBIs. He also has a 2.15 ERA in 71 innings, along with 46 strikeouts and 18 walks on the mound.
THE PICK: Ole Miss
No. 16 Miami (Fla.) at No. 23 Clemson: The Hurricanes have been playing a good brand of baseball the past few weeks and hope to keep the ball rolling this weekend on the road. Miami certainly won't overwhelm you offensively with leading hitter Dale Carey carrying just a .299 batting average, but the pitching staff is lethal. Lefthanded pitcher Andrew Suarez is a power arm with a 2.73 ERA in 69 1/3 innings of work, while Bryan Radziewski is a fun pitcher to watch. He's not a hard-throwing lefty, but displays very good command of the zone and has good secondary stuff. Radziewski has a 2.48 ERA in 61 2/3 innings. As for the Tigers, scouts continue to rave about righthanded pitcher Daniel Gossett, who has been electric much of the season, with his fastball recently getting up to the mid-90s, while a big key to the weekend is the bullpen closing things out.
THE PICK: Clemson
New Mexico at UNLV: If someone was to ask me the top 10 overall “coaches” in college baseball, there's a very good chance New Mexico's Ray Birmingham would be on the list. Even when the Lobos lose some key cogs, as they did last season, Birmingham's teams just seem to reload. Case in point, this season. The Lobos are 31-11 and have a great command ace pitcher in Josh Walker, who has just five walks and a 3.62 ERA in 74 2/3 innings, while closer Victor Sanchez is terrific with an 0.98 ERA in 27 2/3 innings. Offensively, Chase Harris is the table-setter for the Lobos with a .369 batting average, six homers and 51 RBIs. As for the Rebels, it's simply astonishing they somehow went on the road and got swept by Air Force last weekend. Righthanded ace pitcher Erick Fedde has a power arm and hopes to start the weekend on a positive note, while John Richy and Bryan Bonnell must rise to the occasion this weekend.
THE PICK: New Mexico
No. 17 Rice at Southern Miss: The Owls fought their way to a nice series win at home against UAB last weekend without righthanded pitcher Zech Lemond. Lemond will miss at least another week because of tendonitis in his arm, but the Owls had several guys step up, including righthanded pitcher Kevin McCanna and freshman righty Jon Duplantier, who touched 94 with his fastball and displayed very good stuff. Meanwhile, the Golden Eagles have put themselves squarely on the NCAA bubble with a strong showing the past few weeks. USM still has much work to do, but progress is being made with Mason Robbins heating up with some recent power production. On the mound, closer Bradley Roney has a quality arm and a 0.59 ERA in 15 1/3 innings, while Christian Talley has met expectations with a 2.11 ERA in 55 1/3 innings, along with terrific command, as displayed by 48 strikeouts and eight walks.
THE PICK: Rice
No. 24 Indiana at Illinois: Every time the Hoosiers have lost someone to an injury this season, there's been someone else there to step up. That's the sign of a team with a lot of leadership, and of course, great coaching. Indiana catcher Kyle Schwarber continues to have an All-American campaign with a .329 batting average, six homers and 22 RBIs, while Dustin DeMuth and Sam Travis lead the charge with a .367 and .355 batting average, respectively. On the mound, it doesn't get much better than veteran lefthanded pitcher Joey DeNato, who has a 2.12 ERA in 63 2/3 innings. For the Illini, they're just a couple of games behind IU in the Big Ten standings and have some quality arms who have stepped up in Kevin Duchene's absence. For instance, righthanded pitchers Drasen Johnson and John Kravetz are having quality campaigns. Johnson has a 2.30 ERA and Kravetz sports an even 3.00 ERA. Illinois has an RPI of 84 right now, but that could change after this weekend.
THE PICK: Indiana
Tennessee at No. 6 LSU: With a 7-11 mark in the SEC, this weekend is important for the Volunteers if they want to reach the NCAA postseason. The Vols still have time to bounce back the rest of the regular season, but falling to 7-14 or 8-13 would make things increasingly difficult. As for the Tigers, they're coming off a very nice road series win over Ole Miss last weekend. Righthanded pitcher Aaron Nola continues to shine with an 0.88 ERA in 71 2/3 innings, along with 91 strikeouts and 15 walks, while Alden Cartwright stepped up with a nice performance in the series finale against the Rebels last weekend. Cartwright has a 1.74 ERA in 20 2/3 innings, along with 18 strikeouts and three walks.
THE PICK: LSU
• Washington and Washington State are rekindling the Apple Cup on the baseball diamond this weekend, and it's interesting in the sense we expected (before the season) the Cougars to be the showcased team, with the Huskies trying to escape the Pac-12 cellar. Roles now are reversed with the Huskies atop the Pac-12 standings entering the weekend. The Cougars will enter the series without head coach Don Marbut, who's in the midst of a six-game suspension for allegedly “spraying” on an umpire. Marbut has served two games of that suspension, and here's much more on that bizarre story from Cougfan.com.
• As I detailed on my twitter feed (@KendallRogersPG) earlier today, East Carolina junior righthanded pitcher Jeff Hoffman will miss at least 8-10 days because of some arm soreness. ECU head coach Billy Godwin told me Thursday the Pirates didn't think the injury was serious, and said Hoffman should be able to return to the mound next weekend in some sort of capacity. Hoffman was terrific when I saw him against Rice, touching 97 in the eighth inning and showcasing a plus curveball and changeup. He's ranked the No. 2 college prospect for the upcoming Major League Baseball draft.
• It's looking more each day like the defending national champions might yet again miss the NCAA postseason. Arizona did it last season after winning the national title in 2012, while UCLA is 22-17 overall with an RPI of 92 after a series-opening loss to heated rival USC. To make matters worse, the Bruins will be without third baseman Chris Keck the rest of the season because of a blood clot in his arm.
• It's been a trying season for Elliott Avent's N.C. State Wolfpack, but they hope to return to some sort of normalcy this weekend with Georgia Tech coming to Raleigh, N.C. Should the Pack find a way to reach the NCAA postseason with a very strong finish, they'll have to do it without righthanded pitcher Andrew Woeck. Woeck had been pitching very well with a 2.17 ERA in 29 innings, along with 41 strikeouts and nine walks, but will miss the rest of the season after having Tommy John surgery.
• Louisiana-Lafayette junior righthanded pitcher Austin Robichaux had been sidelined a couple of weeks because of an injury, but returned to the mound last weekend in a relief role against Texas-Arlington, allowing a couple of runs in 2 1/3 innings of work. The good news? He's back in comfortable territory this weekend, as he takes the mound against righthanded pitcher Austen Williams and Texas State. Robichaux has a 3.14 ERA in 51 2/3 innings, along with 50 strikeouts and 14 walks, while Williams has a power arm and has flown under the radar a bit on the national stage despite having a 2.58 ERA in 66 1/3 innings, along with 69 strikeouts and 16 walks. Speaking of the Bobcats, Ty Harrington reached a milestone earlier this week with win No. 500 as a head coach.