Muddle in the middle: The weak link in the UVA baseball chain?
Middle relief has been the weak link for UVA baseball’s run toward a national title in recent weeks, even as UVA coach Brian O’Connor has done his best to mask the issue with the front door of his bullpen.
O’Connor has expertly worked around the muddle in the middle in the NCAA Tournament thus far. The job was made easier in the regional round with offensive explosions in the 10-1 win over Bucknell in the opener and the 9-2 win in the clincher over Arkansas with the Cavs jumping out to big early leads.
In the Super Regionals, O’Connor covered for the deficiency by using eighth-inning setup man Whit Mayberry for an extended four and a third to close out Game 1 to keep that game within striking distance, and then in Game 2, after Waddell was knocked out in the sixth, O’Connor went with #3 starter Artie Lewicki for the final three and a third to close out a 7-3 win.
Game 3 Super Regional starter Josh Sborz going seven with an early offensive explosion staking him to a 6-0 lead made the mini-meltdown in the eighth with Austin Young giving up a pair of Maryland runs a little more palatable, but it still demonstrated the issue that Virginia has heading into its appearance in Omaha. The ‘Hoos haven’t been getting consistent performances out of its middle relievers for weeks now.
Freshman righty Connor Jones, a 21st-round MLB Draft pick out of high school, was lights out from February to mid-April, posting a 1.38 ERA in his first 16 appearances in 2014, but Jones has since allowed 13 earned runs in his last 15.1 innings pitched dating back to the Florida State series for a 7.63 ERA. O’Connor used Sborz in the setup role after elevating Lewicki to the three-man weekend rotation late in the season, but as good as he was in the Game 3 Super Regional win over Maryland, Sborz was just as bad in his return to the pen (3-0, 1.98 ERA in 2013), giving up four earned runs in two appearances (2.2 innings) before returning to the rotation in the Super Regionals.
Mayberry in the eighth and Nick Howard in the ninth are still rock solid options for O’Connor to close games out, but Kirby, Waddell, Lewicki and Sborz are going to need to be their own bridge to get the ball to the late-inning guys. That, or O’Connor is going to be rolling the dice, either extending Mayberry, as he did in Game 1 of the Super Regionals, knocking Lewicki out of the rotation to get some key outs, or simply hoping that Jones and Young can get the outs that they haven’t been getting of late.
The third option is the offense continues to bop the ball around the park as it has been doing of late, and the starters continue to dominate and eat up innings as they have been doing all season long, rendering the debate over the struggles in middle relief moot.
– Column by Chris Graham