Wednesday Observations: Virginia baseball righting the ship?
Virginia started the 2021 baseball season ranked fifth in the Baseball America preseason poll, and then after taking two of three from UConn on opening weekend, rose to #2. Then the wheels came off.
The ‘Hoos lost two of three in their first two ACC weekend series, at UNC and at Florida State, then got swept at home by Notre Dame, which put up 30 runs against the suddenly beleaguered pitching staff.
UVA would stand at 4-11 in ACC play after the 4-2 loss at Miami on March 28 that closed out another losing weekend.
Series wins at Georgia Tech and Clemson the past two weekends seem to have things pointed in the right direction for Brian O’Connor’s team, which is back over .500 overall (at 16-15) and 8-13 in conference play.
Next up is a key stretch for the Cavaliers: Louisville and Duke come to Disharoon Park the next two weekends.
It’s obviously incumbent on Virginia to get series wins to get into May with a shot at getting back over .500 in the ACC.
O’Connor indicated this week in a Zoom call with reporters that the positive vibes with the success the past two weekends is palpable in the clubhouse.
“Yeah, there’s no question. I mean, just being around the team, there’s smiles on the faces, things like that. There’s, there’s excitement, there’s joy, there’s guys enjoying what they’re doing. And that happens when you have success,” said O’Connor, attributes the recent turnaround to improved production from the offense, which put up 24 runs in the series at Georgia Tech, and after being held to five hits in a 6-1 loss in the opener at Clemson, scored a combined 14 runs in wins in games two and three.
“We’ve been a little bit more opportunistic. We’ve had some guys step up. You hear me say it a lot, that in order to have offensive days where you’re going to score six, seven, eight runs is what you need to do in this league. For the good majority of the games, because very few of them are 2-1, 3-1 type games, you have to have multiple guys in your lineup have hits and RBIs and things like that,” O’Connor said.
Virginia ranks dead last in the conference in hitting (with an anemic .238/.327/.340 slash line), and the team has accounted for only 16 homers in its 31 games – the next lowest total in the ACC is the 26 hit by Boston College and Duke.
The lack of productivity, which seems to be correcting itself now, has wasted a ton of solid pitching performances. The UVA staff is second in the ACC in team ERA (3.73), with Mike Vasil (2.98) and Andrew Abbott (3.19) both among the top 10 pitchers in the league.
Vasil (5-2, 2.98 ERA, 48K/5BB in 45.1 IP) has been able to pitch around the lack of help, but Abbott (3-5, 3.19 ERA, 66K/17BB in 48 IP) has struggled.
The bullpen has been lights-out, literally in the case of senior righthander Blake Bales (2-0 in 17 appearances, 0.00 ERA in 27 IP, with 37 Ks and four walks).
“The biggest thing with Blake Bales is his ability to come in in crucial situations with runners in scoring position and pitch us out of it. That shows you something, I think. Not only does he have good stuff, he’s pretty calm, and he understands what he needs to do to execute. So he’s been really special,” said O’Connor, who also has high praise for junior lefty Brandon Neeck (0-0 in 11 appearances, and a 1.23 ERA).
“I think you could possibly see us using him even more extended. We’ve kind of been using primarily him to come in and get left-handed hitters out, and he’s really, really effective at that, but he’s proven us that maybe we can start to extend him a little bit and use him a little bit more,” O’Connor said.
For the moment, at least, Griff McGarry (0-4, 6.85 ERA, 38K/27BB in 22.1 IP) has lost his weekend starting role.
McGarry had been slated to start the game with ODU that was postponed due to a weather forecast that had called for rain on Wednesday.
Sophomore lefty Nate Savino (1-1, 2.65 ERA, 13K/6BB in 17 IP) got the start on Sunday at Clemson, and looks to be the Sunday guy for the next few.
O’Connor wants to see McGarry rebuild his confidence in a midweek start or two before he revisits that decision.
“We all know, we saw it in the fall, we know what he’s capable of doing. He knows what he’s capable of doing. It’s just things to very fine line. He just needs to be a little bit more consistent,” O’Connor said.
Story by Chris Graham