Does UVA baseball have a shot at an NCAA bid? A puncher’s chance, maybe

uva baseballBrian O’Connor has not missed an NCAA Tournament since taking over as the head coach at UVA in 2004. There’s a first time for everything.

Coming off the May exam break, O’Connor’s ‘Hoos are 25-20 overall, 9-15 in the ACC, currently sitting in 12th place in the ACC, right on the cut line for a bid in the ACC Tournament, a game ahead of Virginia Tech with two weekends to go in the regular season.

With series upcoming against Georgia Tech (27-22, 11-13 ACC) and Wake Forest (22-26, 11-13), Virginia is fighting for its life, needing series wins just to get to Durham, much less the NCAAs.

UVA fans will remember that the 2015 team that went on to win a national championship faced a similar situation heading into its final two weeks, only clinching a spot in the ACC Tournament with a three-game sweep at North Carolina on the final weekend of the regular season.

That team, like this one, had to tread water for long stretches of the regular season with key guys lost to injury. The 2018 Cavaliers have had to play without Cam Simmons, lost to season-ending shoulder surgery before the first pitch of the season, and have had to go without preseason All-American Jake McCarthy, lost after 13 games with a wrist injury.

Weekend starter Evan Sperling is back, but has made only five starts in 2018 (2-0, 3.04 ERA).

It doesn’t seem O’Connor will be able to get back to full strength before it’s all said and done, and with that said, there is a path to the postseason.

Incumbent, obviously, is getting past Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, who themselves have work to do, not as far as the ACC Tournament is concerned, but if they want to be able to punch tickets to the Big Dance, they also need wins heading into Durham.

Assuming Virginia can do enough the next two weekends to get to the ACC Tournament, the format there guarantees teams two games in pool play. In past years, UVA teams have been able to treat the pool play as a tune-up for the NCAA Regional round the following weekend, but this year the ‘Hoos will clearly need to play to get to the semifinal and final rounds, and my read on it is that Virginia is going to need to win the tournament to get the automatic bid.

I say that because looking at RPI, Virginia is currently just 77th. Georgia Tech is 48th; Wake Forest is 71st. Even sweeping the final two ACC weekend series bumps UVA, at best, to maybe the upper 40s, low 50s, not ideal territory for a team looking at an at-large bid.

Sweep those two, beat Richmond mid-week next week, and go 1-1 in Durham, fail to qualify for the championship rounds there by a tie-breaker, you’ve finished 8-1, your RPI is probably low 40s … maybe is the best I can do for you there.

The path, then, is win the final game in Durham, and to be able to do that, Virginia is going to need to ride its pitching, which hasn’t been as good as it was back in the really good years, but has been solid nonetheless.

Virginia’s 3.79 team ERA is sixth in the ACC, but the ‘Hoos have been stingy defensively, and overall UVA has allowed 200 runs, earned and unearned combined, in 2018, second-lowest in the ACC.

College baseball is played differently in the postseason than it is in the regular season, where you have one or sometimes two mid-week games, then three-game conference series on the weekends. Most teams only delineate weekend starters, and go Johnny Allstaff mid-week.

Can’t do that in the postseason. To run the gauntlet in Durham, UVA will need to play four games in five days.

Looking at the staff, O’Connor has the arms to be able to do that and win. Sperling, Derek Casey (5-3, 3.23 ERA) and Daniel Lynch (3-4, 4.22 ERA) are top-level weekend guys, and Bobby Nicholson (2-1, 1.85 ERA) has been strong in mid-week games all season long.

Noah Murdock (1-1, 10.12 ERA), who has made two starts in a surprising early return from Tommy John surgery, could be an interesting wild card for O’Connor to play, along with Kyle Whitten (2-0, 4.91 ERA) and Grant Donahue (1-2, 5.40 ERA), each of whom has also started two games for O’Connor in 2018.

This is the puncher’s chance I’m giving Oak and UVA. If the ‘Hoos are going to punch a ticket to the NCAAs next month, it’s going to be through its pitching staff.

Column by Chris Graham

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