There’s no such thing as being too high or low in Brian O’Connor and Virginia’s world. It’s all about finding a perfect balance.
The Cavaliers, of course, found this out in perfect fashion last season. About this time last year, the Cavaliers were 10-14 in the ACC following a road series loss to NC State, and O’Connor and his coaching staff had some stern words for their players. The Cavaliers, in essence, needed to go on a ferocious run to make the NCAA postseason, and it wasn’t until a road series sweep over North Carolina to finish the regular season that they truly felt confident about playing some June baseball.
We all know what the Cavaliers accomplished when the postseason arrived, and that lesson is one that Virginia once again is tapping into as it hits the road this weekend to face No. 1 Miami with a respectable 24-16 overall record, and also a .500 (9-9) mark in league play. The Cavaliers aren’t nearly as in danger of missing the postseason as they were at this time last year, but the lesson is clear – it’s all about putting all the pieces together for a postseason run.
“There’s definitely a sense of urgency with this group, they want to win every game. But, these guys also know that we’re judged on how well we finish the season. After all, no one from the outside remembers anything else about the season.”
As one might suspect, the Cavaliers have been a work in progress this spring. They lost a few key cogs from last year’s national title team, including some key leaders, namely Kenny Towns, Josh Sborz and others. By default, they’ve had to rush some young players into the mix and it hasn’t always produced the greatest results. For instance, the Cavaliers played 11 position players much of the weekend against North Carolina, and of those, nine were underclassmen, with three of them true freshmen. The only two upperclassmen? Shortstop Danny Pinero and rising catcher Matt Thaiss.
“Knowing that half the team was going to be freshmen or underclassmen and not having a proven weekend starter outside of Connor Jones, we knew this season could certainly have some ups and downs,” O’Connor said. “That’s what we’ve experienced so far, and I think this group is working toward a point of being pretty consistent at the most important time of the year. We’re 9-9 in the league, and that’s fine, and it’s going to come down to how we finish.”
The weekend rotation was one of the biggest concerns for the Cavaliers entering the season, but O’Connor feels like his team is nearing a stable, set three-man rotation with Jones, lefthanded two-way standout Adam Haseley and righthander Alec Bettinger, who was in the bullpen earlier this season, but is now back in the rotation with fellow righty Tommy Doyle moving back to the bullpen as the stopper. Bettinger, who has only made two starts this season, hopes to flourish in his new role after accumulating an ERA over five, while O’Connor feels like Doyle’s personality and stuff will flourish on the back-end, with his fastball sitting 90-94, along with a quality slider. Meanwhile, Haseley has built off his showing in Omaha last year, and carries a 1.60 ERA in 45 innings, with teams hitting him at a .199 clip. The lefty sits in the upper-80s with his fastball, along with good pitchability.
While the pitching staff continues to get their bearings straight, the Cavaliers have to like their situation as the postseason nears. Matt Thaiss has evolved into an All-American type of player and rising prospect with a .382 average, six homers and 39 RBIs, while Pavin Smith (.331/4/39) has been a force behind him in the lineup, and Pinero is being that role player and quality hitter he was expected to be coming into the season. Ernie Clement is also having a quality campaign, while the use of the younger players in the lineup has been very much a revolving door with each player kind of going into spurts, including Jack Gerstenmaier, Ryan Karstetter, Nate Eikhoff, Justin Novak, Doak Dozier and Cameron Simmons, among others.
“The top half of the lineup, Pinero has a ton of experience, Smith and Thaiss are really good, and there are some others out there that we’re looking to be a bit more consistent,” he said. “We’ve had young players who are kind of going into spurts, so we’ve tried different guys at different times. None of those guys have been tremendously consistent, so we’re just approaching it with trying to play the hot hand.
“As for Thaiss, he’s been tremendous,” he said. “I thought he was really good at the back half of last year, too, and he’s taken his game to a completely different level this season. He’s been really consistent offensively, and he’s been solid behind the plate. Offensively, he’s just locked in with a great approach, and he’s got power.”
Seeing how the Cavaliers progress down the stretch will be fascinating to watch. As LSU has shown the past few weeks, playing with a hefty crop of newcomers can often lead to see-saw results, but also carry a set of circumstances that often become more consistent as the season continues.
The hope for this team is that those guys and others get sufficient experience and at bats, and thus will be ready for the postseason run.
Virginia, which has an RPI of 46 entering the Miami series, would like to be more consistent during the regular season. But, they also know what truly matters at the end of this season.
It’s all about finding that right balance in June.