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May 25, 2010
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – On one hand, the path to a national championship in baseball can look daunting.
But Virginia coach Brian O’Connor has a way of breaking the task down into its most basic terms.
“Now we turn our attention and try to win a tournament every weekend from here all out,” O’Connor said.
The first such weekend actually begins on a Wednesday when the Cavaliers play the opening game of the ACC Tournament in Greensboro’s NewBridge Bank Park. They will meet Boston College at noon.
In a league as deep as the ACC, it’s difficult to single out a favorite. But it’s hard to argue that Virginia enters as the team to beat. The Cavs are 45-10 overall and ranked No. 1 by Baseball America. They earned the top seed in the tournament with a 23-7 ACC record and led the league in hitting (.345) and ERA (3.48).
In conference games only, Virginia also topped the league with a .315 batting average and 3.32 ERA.
O’Connor said winning the regular season was “a tremendous accomplishment” and he believes that, coupled with the high national ranking and a high RPI, should ensure one of the top eight seeds for the NCAA playoffs.
Of course, he added, nothing is set in stone. Last season Virginia won the ACC Tournament in Durham and was shipped out to a regional in Irvine, Calif. There it drew San Diego State and pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg in its first game.
Virginia pinned the only loss of the season on Strasburg, went on to win the regional, then was sent to Oxford, Miss, for a super regional. The Cavs won that, too, to advance to the College World Series in Omaha, where they played three games and were eliminated.
So what do the Cavs have to play for here? O’Connor believes his team will not approach things with (please excuse the upcoming pun) a cavalier attitude.
“I think the ACC tournament is really important,” O’Connor said. “Obviously we’re proud that we won the regular season, but what the ACC considers as the true champion is the conference tournament winner.
“We’re going down to Greensboro to try to win another conference championship, that’s our goal. It’s got (an effect) on next weekend and in the future, so we want to continue to play really good baseball going into the NCAA tournament.”
O’Connor has set his pitching rotation. Cody Wisniarski (5-0, 4.23) will throw the opening game, followed by Robert Morey (9-2, 3.34) against Florida State Thursday and staff ace Danny Hultzen (8-1, 2.08) against Miami Saturday.
Hultzen was named the ACC Pitcher of the Year and All-ACC on Monday. The left-hander struggled with his control in his last two starts, but O’Connor isn’t worried.
(He hit a) tough stretch,” O’Connor said. “Everybody goes through it; he’s so talented he can turn it around in a heartbeat. He hadn’t pitched great against North Carolina but he only gave up one run in five innings, didn’t pitch well at Miami but we still won the ball game.
“That speaks to the level of stuff that his kid has, that he might have an off outing but he’s still giving his team a chance to beat North Carolina and Miami. Mechanically he needs to clean himself up a little bit.”
If the Cavs reach the championship game, freshman Branden Kline (4-0, 3.06) will be the likely choice. O’Connor gave Kline a taste of pressure baseball by starting him in the first game against Miami last week.
Leads are usually safe for the Cavaliers. Closer Kevin Arico, another All-ACC choice, has notched 15 saves.
On the offensive side, the Cavs have strength throughout the lineup. Keith Werman is hitting .446, Phil Gosselin .379, John Barr .368, Kenny Swab .345, Tyler Cannon .342 and Jarrett Parker .340.
While Virginia doesn’t hit many home runs (49 on the season), the batters reach base so often there are plenty of RBI chances. Steve Proscia has 58, Gosselin 49, Parker and Dan Grovatt 48 each and John Hicks 41.
Gosselin was a first-team All-ACC pick as an outfielder, with second baseman Werman, shortstop Cannon and pitcher Morey all making the second team. O’Connor, incidentally, was named coach of the year.
Gosselin is the offensive sparkplug. He made two big changes this season, moving from second base to left field and from the middle of the order to the leadoff spot.
“What’s made him have a great year is consistency,” O’Connor said. “This guy, from an offensive standpoint, has been a model of consistency, come out every day and put up quality at-bats. He’s among the best hitters we have coached here in seven years.
“This guy can really, really hit and he can make adjustments within a game of what pitchers are doing to him. I think the guy is a special player offensively and he’s got some really great versatility.”
As strong as the Cavs are, there’s nothing automatic about their winning the tournament. Georgia Tech (44-11) comes in ranked as high as No. 6 in the country, Florida State (39-16) No. 6, Miami (39-15) No. 9, Clemson (37-19) No. 20 and Virginia Tech (36-19) No. 20. (Note: rankings as the highest for that team in the four major polls.)
Only two teams are unranked. Boston College scrapped its way into the field and NC State swept its final series to earn a berth. Neither will be an easy out. This is the first time the tournament has been played in Greensboro and the unanswered question is how the metal bats will play in the cozy park. The lines are 315 feet to left field and 312 to right; power alleys are 365 to left and 362 to right; center field is 400. Might that favor power-hitting teams like Georgia Tech (111 home runs), NC State (90 homers) and Miami (82)?
“I’ve heard that it’s a shorter ballpark,” O’Connor said, “but the level of pitching that’s in this league can negate some of that just because you’ve got some really great arms and some really talented pitchers. I can tell you from our standpoint we won’t change the way we play or our style or anything like that based on the dimensions of the park.”
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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