UVa. gets win in O’Connor homecoming

Story by Chris Graham

Before the game, Brian O’Connor caught up with Bob Wease, who had recruited him to pitch for the Valley League’s Harrisonburg Turks back in 1990. The game itself worked out well for O’Connor’s top-ranked Virginia baseball team, which broke up a close game with a pair of unearned runs in the ninth to defeat James Madison 6-3. Afterwards, the UVa. skipper was gushing about the homecoming of sorts that had played itself out with a school-record baseball crowd of more than 2,400 including approximately 600 fans that watched the game from a hill before the left-field fence at JMU’s new Veterans Memorial Park.

“I was really, really impressed. Obviously JMU has a beautiful facility here, first-class, and to have this kind of crowd is exciting for them, and also equally exciting for us,” O’Connor said.

To the game on the field, Virginia took the early lead when John Barr singled to right to score John Hicks from second. It was a nip-and-tuck affair from there, with the Dukes closing to 4-3 in the seventh when McKinnon Langston doubled to left-center to plate Brett Garner, who had doubled to lead off the bottom of the seventh.

Virginia (14-3) scored two in the ninth when Barr drew a leadoff walk from JMU closer Kevin Munson, who hit the next batter, Kenny Swab, with a pitch, and then Madison catcher Jake Lowery mishandled a bunt by pinch-hitter Keith Werman and threw the ball down the right-field line, allowing Barr to score. A Dan Grovatt sacrifice fly later scored Werman.

The JMU ninth didn’t end without some drama, as the Dukes (5-9) were able to get two runners on base off Virginia closer Kevin Arrico before he could induce Lowery to fly out to deep right to end it.

UVa. freshman hurler Branden Kline picked up his first collegiate win, going five-plus innings while allowing two runs, one earned, on two hits.

“This was a breakthrough outing for Branden Kline,” O’Connor said. “He’s a young freshman. That was his second start of the season. He’s obviously got a ton of talent. He’s got a great arm. And he made some big pitches tonight. That to me is the story of the game – his quality start and also that was a big team win overall for us. A lot of guys executed for us to win that ballgame.”

O’Connor used four pitchers in relief in a game that was played like you see games played at tournament time with O’Connor and JMU skipper Spanky McFarlane going back-and-forth on hitting-pitching matchups in the late innings.

“The back half of the game did take a long time. There were a lot of pitching changes on both sides. Not a lot of strikes thrown, a lot of walks, things like that. It wasn’t a real pretty game,” O’Connor said.

JMU junior Alex Valadja took the loss to fall to 0-2 despite a strong outing. Valadja allowed just two runs to a Cavaliers’ offense that entered the day with a .365 team batting average. He struck out four and allowed four hits.

JMU’s pitching staff was hurt by a total of 12 walks, with Valadja issuing six, along with four wild pitches and two passed balls.

“We probably gave them a few too many free bases,” McFarland said.

Overall, though, it was a good night for JMU baseball, except for the result.

“We’ve been talking about this for years, with the lights and the first night game and playing Virginia,” McFarland said. “Obviously last time we played them, we beat them. We have a pretty good history of success with them. I hope we can keep this rivalry going. I think it will, too, after this. I think they’ll want to come here and play after an atmosphere like this tonight.”

You could definitely sense that talking to O’Connor.

“Great turnout, overflow crowd, and that’s what college baseball should be, and it’s great to see people coming out to support it,” O’Connor said.

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