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Aaron Fitt | | January 15, 2021

Virginia baseball aims for first NCAA tournament berth since 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The dark days are over for Virginia. The Cavaliers haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2017, but they appeared well on their way to returning to the postseason last spring, going 14-4 and opening ACC play with a series win against an NC State club ranked in the top 10 before the season was canceled. UVA finished the year back inside the Top 25, and it had the look of a club that could make a strong push to host a regional.

And every key piece of the 2020 team is back for another run in 2021, which should make Virginia one of the favorites in the ACC. The explosive offense ranked seventh in the nation in scoring, 10th in homers and 11th in OBP in the shortened spring, and it will continue to be a force next spring. But the pitching staff also made huge strides, posting a 3.39 ERA that ranked 69th nationally. Pitching held the Cavs back in 2018 and 2019, but now they have the kind of front-line quality and depth on the mound that measures up to their College World Series standard from 2014-15.

“I do feel that way. I feel like we’re assembling the kind of pitching staff that is the kind of staffs that have had high level success at our program here,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “The skill level is at a really good place, and couple that with some really good experience. Obviously we had some really good staffs there from the early to mid 2010s, ’10 to ’15 or so were pretty special. Some of those staffs had more experience, some of those staffs had guys returning that had 70, 80, 90 innings from the year before, but there’s some really high-level experience.”

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In the two fall scrimmages I saw at Disharoon Park at Davenport Field, Virginia’s four talented weekend starter candidates went head-to-head on back-to-back days. Notably, fourth-year junior left-hander Andrew Abbott has worked as a starter all fall, after serving as the linchpin of the bullpen over the last three seasons. And he was dominant in the three scoreless innings I saw, striking out three while allowing just one baserunner. Abbott carved up the zone at 91-93 and showcased his typical wipeout curveball at 75-79 with a high spin rate in the 2700-2900 rpm range, one of the best breaking balls in college baseball. He also mixed in a firm but effective changeup at 85-87, giving him a solid third offering to combat righties. Abbott ranked No. 64 on our Top 150 college prospects list for the 2020 draft, and we expected some pro team would surely take him in the top five rounds and sign him — so did the Cavaliers. But the buzz among scouts is that Abbott stuck firm to his high asking price, and he went undrafted, giving UVA its biggest mound weapon for another year. As good as he’s been in the bullpen, Abbott changes the dynamics of Virginia’s staff by sliding into the rotation and potentially eating up 100-plus innings; his career high for innings as a reliever was 51. He has the best combination of stuff, command and experience on this staff, so it makes sense to maximize his workload.

“His improvement I think has been his efficiency,” O’Connor said. “Pitching out of the bullpen his first two years, I think you can run a pretty high pitch counts because you’re in high leverage situations and you’re in deeper counts a lot. He’s learned to get outs early and added a changeup to be a little bit more efficient. 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. 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.”

In the Friday scrimmage I caught, Abbott went up against fellow left-hander Nate Savino, an early enrollee last winter who who ranked No. 3 on our 2020 preseason Top 150 Impact Freshmen list. A true blue-chip recruit who was widely regarded as an easy first-round talent had he entered the 2021 draft, Savino is long, lean and ultra-projectable with a clean, easy high three-quarters arm action. I saw him work at 89-92 with a heavy fastball that had good arm-side life, a big-breaking 76-78 curveball that was inconsistent on this look, and a quality changeup at 79-80 that he located very well. O’Connor said he’s been up to 94-95 mph this fall, and he’s worked hard on improving his athleticism in the offseason. O’Connor said the next step for his development is simply developing the in-game savvy to win high-leverage college baseball games, and that will come with experience.

The Saturday game pitted fourth-year junior right-hander Griff McGarry against third-year sophomore righty Mike Vasil, both of whom have two years of weekend starter experience, counting the abbreviated 2020 campaign. McGarry has the biggest arm on the staff, and he touched 96 mph when I was in town, sitting at 94-95 in the first and then pitching comfortably at mostly 93-94 for his next two innings. His fastball has a very high spin rate in the 2400-2630 range, giving it good carry through the zone, but he scattered it in this look, which is something he’s battled throughout his career. He also flashes a plus power curveball at 80-82 with big downer break and a high spin rate (up to 2940 rpm) and a solid changeup at 83-86, though he drops his slot to three-quarters when he throws it. The key for McGarry is obviously improving his control and command; he walked 54 batters in 53.1 innings in 2019, then issued 19 walks in 20 innings last spring, despite posting a 1.35 ERA. O’Connor said “he just runs in spurts” with his command, but he’s making progress this fall, focusing on trying to repeat his delivery more consistently and stay in sync.

Vasil worked three shutout innings and pitched at mostly 91-92 along with three solid offspeed offerings, highlighted by his sharp downer curveball at 77-81. His delivery doesn’t have much effort and he has a big, strong frame, so it’s easy to envision him throwing harder than he did in this look. And indeed, he has thrown harder this fall.

“I think he’s really matured,” O’Connor said. “He’s been better than he showed that day, it’s been as high as 95 a handful of times, it’s been more 91-94 touching 95, the breaking ball’s been more consistent, the changeup has gotten better. It’s just more of the growth and maturity in his overall game has progressed. The changeup is the pitch that I think has really come along for him.”

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One of the reasons O’Connor feels comfortable moving Abbot into a starting role is because the bullpen is well stocked with experienced, dependable veterans with quality stuff. Physical 6-foot-5 sidewinder Stephen Schoch came in as a graduate transfer last year and made a huge impact, posting a 1.62 ERA, five saves and a 24-5 K-BB mark in 16.2 innings. He’s uncommonly firm for his low slot, attacking at 88-91 with a putaway slider, and he’s a reliable strike-thrower. Schoch and fourth-year junior righty Kyle Whitten will anchor the bullpen, and both of them have loads of experience. Whitten’s command was a bit inconsistent on the Friday outing I saw, but the stuff remains good: a 90-92 fastball with a swing-and-miss slider at 80-82 and a nice downer curveball at 74 mph that he likes to back-door for a strike early in counts against lefties.

Fifth-year senior Paul Kosanovich is a third seasoned vet who will help lead the bullpen unit. Another big-bodied righty at 6-4, 238 pounds, Kosanovich can run his heater up to 93 and miss bats with his good slider. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Blake Bales carved out a meaningful bullpen role last spring as well, posting a 2.08 ERA in six appearances. Now a fourth-year junior Bales just keeps getting better; in the Friday scrimmage, he worked at 89-92 with an excellent curveball at 78-81 with sharp two-plane break and a functional changeup. Third-year sophomore Zach Messinger made two midweek starts among his seven appearances last year and racked up 22 strikeouts against just three walks in 13.2 innings. He’s worked as a starter this fall as well and could see more midweek starts if there are midweek games in 2021, or he could function as a valuable swingman. A lanky 6-foot-5 righty, Messinger has been 89-92 this fall with a good slider and changeup, per O’Connor.

Two emerging second-year freshmen and one true freshman give Virginia even more options from the right side. Second-year freshman Jacob Hodorovich has been 90-92 with good feel for a quality breaking ball and changeup this fall; look for him to make a big jump after posting a 6.75 ERA in four appearances last spring. Second-year freshman Matt Wyatt posted a 3.00 ERA but a modest 8-7 K-BB mark in 12 innings last spring, and he’s continued to improve this fall, working at 90-93 with a good slider from a three-quarters slot. The true freshman in this mix is Channing Austin, an athletic 6-foot-2, 205-pound former two-way player who should really take off now that he’s focusing exclusively on pitching. O’Connor said he’s been 89-92 and bumping 93-94 with a very promising slider.

The go-to lefty out of the bullpen figures to be third-year freshman Brandon Neeck, who made three relief appearances last spring after missing all of 2019 while recovering from shoulder surgery. Neeck showed good command of his 88-90 fastball and solid 78-80 slurve in my look this fall. True freshmen Jake Berry, Rece Ritchey and Luke Schauer plus second-year freshman Jake Baldino give the ‘Hoos additional left-handed options, though all of them still need development in one area or another. The towering 6-foot-10, 245-pound Berry worked at 86-88 in my fall look but has ran his heater up to 93 in the past, and his promising four-pitch mix also includes a 78-79 slider that showed good bite at times. The lanky, projectable Ritchey has also reached the low 90s and has feel to spin a good breaking ball. Schauer is a pitchability lefty who carves up the zone at 87-88 with a good breaking ball, and he might be the most advanced of the three freshman southpaws. Baldino is another tall, skinny 6-foot-4, 180-pounder with a low three-quarters slot that generates 84-86 mph sinkers and a deceptive mid-70s changeup with good fade.

Virginia has a strong group behind the plate to handle that pitching staff, led by fifth-year senior Logan Michaels, a natural leader with loads of experience and polished catch-and-throw skills. He routinely produced pop times at or below 2.00 seconds this fall, and his arm is accurate. He also has good contact skills at the plate, and he hit .311 in 135 at-bats in 2019, then hit .316 last spring. Blue-chip freshman Kyle Teel is the catcher of the future, with an exciting tool set that could make him a first-round pick by the time he leaves Virginia. He’s a standout athlete with excellent agility — O’Connor says he’s like a shortstop behind the plate — and he has plenty of strength in his left-handed swing along with an advanced feel for hitting. He figures to log plenty of playing time right away, either spelling Michaels at catcher or carving out time on the infield.

“Teel comes in with the highest accolades and is most skilled among those freshman position players,” O’Connor said. “He can really play anywhere; he’s so athletic he can go play on the infield. We’ve focused on him behind the plate to get him experience, but his versatility will provide options.”

Fourth-year junior Brendan Rivoli can also slide behind the plate when needed, but his calling card is his left-handed bat, which should get him in the lineup at DH or left field when he’s not catching. He’s a seasoned, valuable run producer who should hit plenty of doubles and occasional home runs.

The outfield mix is crowded, between Rivoli, second-year freshman Chris Newell, fourth-year junior Marc Lebreux, third-year sophomore Drew Hamrock and third-year sophomore Jimmy Sullivan. Newell is a budding superstar in center field, with one of college baseball’s most exciting combinations of speed and left-handed power. He hit .407/.545/.729 with four homers, 20 RBIs and eight steals in eight tries last spring, and “the sky’s the limit for the guy,” as O’Connor put it. Lebreux can also play center, but with Newell locked in at that spot, Lebreux fits better in left, where his speed is an asset. He’s a skilled bat handler from the left side with a patient approach (he posted a 13-7 BB-K mark and hit .303 in 66 at-bats last spring as a junior college transfer). Hamrock arrived in Charlottesville as a catcher but has seen time in left field and second base this fall. He’s a quick-twitch athlete with good speed and a knack for putting the ball in play. The 6-foot-5 Sullivan stood out for his left-handed power potential in batting practice and showed a strong arm with good carry in right field. He’s an interesting X-factor on this roster.

“He’s long, he’s strong. Last year against NC State he hit a ball that hit the very top of the scoreboard, he showed some power,” O’Connor said of Sullivan. “It’s just consistency, that’s what he’s working on. He’s clearly better now than when he first got here, it’s just been a slow progression; he’s shown signs of being a really, really competitive player. He stepped in last year, didn’t start but did a nice job when guys got dinged up.”

Virginia Athletics Chris Newell of Virginia baseballChris Newell of Virginia baseball rounds the bases during the abbreviated 2020 season.

One of the centerpieces of the lineup will be third-year sophomore Zack Gelof, a physical presence with right-handed power and the ability to hit for average, though he’s missed time this fall with a nagging injury, allowing his little brother Jake Gelof and veteran Devin Ortiz to see action at the hot corner. Jake, a true freshman, has a mature approach and good balance at the plate, with a strong, compact frame that should produce some power over the course of his collegiate career. Ortiz has made more of an impact as a pitcher in his first three years on grounds, as they say in Charlottesville, but he only saw action as a position player last spring, and the same is true this fall — O’Connor said they’ll re-evaluate in the spring whether or not to use him on the mound. His right-handed swing looked great when I was at Davenport FIeld, and he crushed a three-run homer halfway up the left-field bleachers on a Savino changeup. He also defended well at the hot corner, where his hands and arm strength play well.

Third-year sophomore Nic Kent and second-year freshman Max Cotier are competing for the starting shortstop job, and the other will most likely land at second base. Kent, who played short last year, is more physical than Cotier and has worked to improve his arm strength and accuracy. Cotier is an athletic scrapper with good baseball instincts and barrel awareness from the left side, but he needs to continue to add strength. Regardless of how the competition shakes out, Kent and Cotier should form a rock-solid middle infield tandem, with Jake Gelof and fellow freshman David Coppedge providing security behind them. I liked what I saw from Coppedge, an aggressive, instinctive defender with smooth infield actions and a quick transfer, as well as some sneaky right-handed pop.

Assuming the powerful Zack Gelof is entrenched at the hot corner, Ortiz could compete for the job at first base with fourth-year junior Alex Tappen and second-year freshman Tate Ballestero. Tappen arrived at UVA as a right fielder, and O’Connor said he could move back to right any time and be an above-average college defender, but the Cavs are trying to get him as much experience as possible at first base this year to maximize their lineup flexibility. O’Connor said Tappen has been one of the team’s most consistent hitters this fall; if he can harness his right-handed power potential in his fourth year with the program, he could blossom into a big difference maker. Ballestero is a lanky switch-hitter with some whip in his stroke, and he hit the ball on the nose repeatedly in the two scrimmages I saw. This group of players could also factor into the DH mix along with Rivoli and fourth-year junior Christian Hlinka, a physical 6-foot-2 left-handed hitter who turned in very competitive at-bats in my fall looks, after hitting four homers in 25 at-bats last spring. Hlinka could also factor into that crowded outfield mix.

“Overall, as excited as I am about our pitching staff because I think we’ve got the kind of staff we’ve had here before on some of our great teams, but the depth of our position players I feel really, really great about,” O’Connor said.

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