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Bad luck or no luck: Is UVA baseball on the outside looking in for NCAA, even ACC invites?

uva baseballUVA baseball entered 2015 with the highest of expectations. Preseason #1 in some polls, consensus top three across the board, coming off the deepest of runs in Omaha, it was College World Series-or-Bust for the Cavs, who brought back their top three starting pitchers from 2014 at the top of an embarrassingly deep pitching staff.

Sure, there were issues, with Mike Papi and Derek Fisher gone from the heart of the order, Nick Howard no longer closing out games, Artie Lewicki not around for spot-starting and long-relieving, but everybody has issues.

Turns out the issues were just beginning for coach Brian O’Connor and his staff. The best returning run-producer from 2014, Joe McCarthy, had back surgery just before the start of the 2015 season, and didn’t get back into the lineup until mid-April. Infielder (and .348 hitter in 2014) John La Prise would play just four games before going down with a season-ending injury.

Top recruit Jack Gerstenmaier was also felled by injury and just got into the lineup last week. Projected starting catcher Robbie Coman had knee issues that limited his time behind the plate, forcing the best and most productive hitter on this year’s team, Matt Thaiss, to go long (and tiring) stretches behind the plate.

The injury issues forced O’Connor to have to play guys out of position around the diamond, and this no doubt has contributed to the issues with team defense, with the Cavs already having committed 52 errors (through 40 games) in 2015 after committing only 51 (in 69 games) in 2014.

When your defense isn’t as sound behind you, your pitching is going to be impacted as well, and that has been most noticeable in the number of bases on balls from the UVA pitching staff, at 178 through 364.1 innings in 2015, from a staff that surrendered 200 in 626 innings in 2014, pushing the team ERA up from a miniscule 2.23 in 2014 to a very average 3.51 in 2015.

But things were looking up. McCarthy and Gerstenmaier returned last week. Coman is back behind the plate, freeing up Thaiss to return to first base.

The best approximation of the 2015 ‘Hoos that went into the 2015 season as the #1 team in the land was finally on the field for the home series with Miami last weekend.

It lasted for all of three innings.

All-American ace lefty Nathan Kirby left his Friday night start against the ‘Canes with a lat strain. Virginia cobbled together a win on Friday, and eventually took the series, but then the hammer came down on Tuesday, when O’Connor told reporters after an easy UVA win over Longwood that Kirby will be out six to eight weeks with the lat strain.

O’Connor said after the Longwood win that all options are on the table for replacing Kirby in the short term, with weekend starters Connor Jones (4-2, 3.49 ERA) and Brandon Waddell (2-4, 5.18 ERA) each moving up a day, and then, well, the outside world, and maybe even the inner circle, doesn’t know.

Josh Sborz was the Saturday starter in 2014, but Sborz was moved to the bullpen as the closer in 2015, and has done well (1-2, 2.32 ERA, 11 saves). Moving Sborz up into a starting role is not as easy as it sounds. It could take a couple of weeks for him to build up the endurance to be able to make that switch, and Virginia doesn’t have a couple of weeks for him to do that.

Derek Casey (4-1, 3.06 ERA in 10 appearances/6 starts) had been in the mix for the Sunday job, but he left the Longwood game with an arm injury, more bad luck.

Alec Bettinger (3-1, 2.23 ERA in 15 appearances/3 starts) could get the ball on Sundays. Also an option is setup man Kevin Doherty (2-1, 3.42 ERA), who was a starter in summer ball in Waynesboro in 2014, but Doherty would have the same awkward transition that Sborz would have.

Move Doherty into the rotation, and you need to find another setup man. Move Sborz into the rotation, you need to find a new closer. Whatever way you look at it, the embarrassment of riches that was the pitching staff is suddenly a weak point.

The long and short of it is that the chemistry experiment that is a baseball team over the course of a long baseball season has just not worked out for the 2015 Virginia baseball team. We got three innings of 98 percent of the team that was expected to take the field to make another run at Omaha, and then six to eight weeks to see if that team will get back intact to make that run.

Six weeks is May 29, the opening day for the NCAA Regionals. To say the least, it’s anything but a guarantee that Virginia will get an invite at this stage, with a 25-15 overall record, a 9-12 mark in the ACC, an RPI of 36.

It’s not even a given that UVA gets into the 10-team ACC Tournament right here and now. The top three teams in the ACC – Louisville, Miami and Florida State – are set, but after that it’s a crapshoot, with no less than nine teams within three games of each other in the standings.

The Cavs have three ACC series left, two on the road, at NC State (21-17, 9-11 ACC, RPI 62) and North Carolina (25-15, 10-10 ACC, RPI 22), sandwiched around a home series with Duke (22-17, 5-15 ACC, RPI 66).

Presumably UVA needs to go at least 5-4 down the stretch to get into the ACC Tournament, and then it might take at worst a 2-1 effort in Durham, plus lack of slippage in the Cavs’ final three non-conference games (Liberty, at ODU, Richmond).

That puts Virginia at 35-20, 16-16 in the ACC, a two seed, maybe a three seed, on the road in late May for the first time in forever.

That’s best-case scenario right now for UVA baseball, which can’t rely on being able to trot out the best left-handed pitcher not getting paid to play baseball four more times as part of the campaign to get into the NCAAs.

If anybody can figure it out, Brian O’Connor and his staff can figure it out, but this one might be too hard even for those guys to get right.

– Column by Chris Graham

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