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May 16, 2013
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - The only thing Mike Papi enjoys more than collecting baseballs is knocking the stitches off of them.
It took a little time for the sophomore outfielder to gain a regular spot in Virginia's lineup, but once he did he became a real force. He leads the ACC with a .411 batting average, a .659 slugging average and a .547 on-base percentage. He has 11 doubles, three triples, five homers and 47 RBIs to his credit and has drawn 35 walks.
Papi (pronounced pappy) has been a big reason Virginia has put up a 43-8 record and is ranked No.7 nationally. The Cavaliers close the regular season with a three-game series at North Carolina that begins with a game tonight at 6 p.m.
The Tar Heels are 46-6 and ranked No. 2 in the country. They had not lost a series all season until Georgia Tech took two out of three last weekend.
This series will settle first place in the Coastal Division. North Carolina is 20-5, having lost two games to rain, and Virginia is 20-7. To finish on top, Virginia must sweep the series while the Tar Heels can clinch by winning once.
"It's a huge series for us," Papi acknowledged, "but we're going to treat it like any other series. We're going to go in there and play our game and hopefully it will work out for us."
An interesting aspect of the series is that it pits the ACC's No. 1 pitching staff (UNC with a 2.39 ERA) against the No. 1 hitting club (Virginia with a .317 batting average).
The Cavaliers have a host of good hitters around Papi. Joe McCarthy is hitting .343, Nick Howard .336 and Brandon Downes .328 (with seven homers and 52 RBIs). Missing for the moment is shortstop Brandon Cogswell (.346), out with a broken finger.
Virginia's pitching staff stacks up well, too. No. 1 starter Scott Silverstein is 8-1 with a 3.21 ERA. Kyle Crockett has recorded 10 saves.
Papi was a fine pitcher and hitter in high school in Tunkhannock, Pa., who threw a no-hitter in the state semifinals in 2011. The Cavaliers wanted him as an everyday player and he had a solid year as a freshman. Before his season was ended by a bulging disc in his back, he hit .283 with eight doubles, a homer and 17 RBI.
This year he didn't play in some early games because McCarthy, Downes and Derek Fisher had the outfield spots nailed down. But in an early series against Clemson, Papi had a game-tying hit in the ninth inning as a pinch-hitter, then a go-ahead homer in the 11th.
Since then, the left-handed hitter has stayed in the lineup, moving from right field to left field and occasionally designated hitter.
"I'm getting more at-bats and finding myself in more of a groove, more of a rhythm at the plate," Papi said of the difference in his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Baseball runs in Papi's family. His father, Joe, was a left-handed pitcher at East Stroudsburg State from 1971-73, leading the team in wins, innings and strikeouts in 1972. His middle brother, Jeff, was a right-hander at Mansfield University and racked up an 8-3 record and 2.67 ERA in 2004.
"My dad has been a huge mentor of mine throughout my whole baseball career," Papi said. "He probably taught me everything I know about the game.
"Jeff taught me more about the tough aspects of the game, going out there and being a bulldog, playing as hard as I can. Both of them have been a great help to my baseball career and they're both there for support now."
Collecting baseballs started with his mother, who gave him his first one. He estimates he has more than 100 now, ranging from themes (Christmas, Disney characters) to balls from different parks to autographs (Derek Jeter is his favorite).
And he's hoping to add to the collection in the postseason. The ACC Championship will be in Durham's Triple-A park, so that's one possibility. And after that the Cavs will most certainly be in the NCAA Regionals, which present more opportunities. Ultimately Papi would like to get one in Omaha, site of the College World Series.
More than baseballs, though, Papi is concerned about how well the Cavaliers perform.
"We're definitely a close-knit group," he said. "Our chemistry is really good. Every day we come to the field planning to go hard and play 27 outs no matter what. I think what has really helped us this year is keeping high energy throughout practices and it has translated from practices to games.
"I believe fundamentals are definitely a big part of the game for us. If we take care of the small things every day, the big things will take care of themselves."
Having missed the ACC and NCAA tournaments last year because of his back injury, Papi is especially eager to participate in those events this season.
"I'm really looking forward to those games and seeing how far we can go in this thing," he said.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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