Bill Hass on the ACC: Stephen Bruno Sets the Pace for Virginia's Offense
May 17, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – Stephen Bruno doesn’t get cheated when he plays baseball.
Whether it’s the hard way he swings at pitches or the way he adapts to a new position or even the way he responds to a season-ending injury, he makes the most of his opportunities.
Bruno is Virginia’s third baseman, a redshirt sophomore who is the team’s leading hitter. The Cavaliers, 16-11 in ACC play, finish their regular-season schedule with three games at Maryland, beginning tonight.
He’s batting .365, fifth among ACC hitters, and has 47 RBIs, tied for fourth. That production has helped Virginia to a 34-15-1 record and a No. 19 ranking in the USA Today poll.
Bruno may be on the small side – he says he’s 5-8½ and 175 pounds – but he generates good power. He has six home runs and recently hit two in a home game against Georgia Tech, made even more special because his family was in the stands.
“I don’t really know how to explain it,” he said. “I was just trying for quality at-bats and I got a couple pitches to hit and luckily I hit them out. For a little guy I have some pop and it’s always nice for someone my size to hit a couple out in a game.”
So what’s his secret?
“All I can say is I don’t get cheated at the plate,” he said with a laugh. “I make the most of my swings and when I see the ball in the zone I’m going to swing as hard as I can. Not jump out of my shoes, but be the hitter than I am.”
Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said it’s a combination of bat speed and leverage in Bruno’s swing and his approach at the plate.
“We knew when we recruited him in high school that even though in stature he’s not a real big guy, he is very, very aggressive,” O’Connor said. “He’s going to get his hacks in and I love that about him. I love his aggressiveness.”
Bruno is happy to be back on the field again. As a freshman, the native of Audobon, N.J., showed promise as a part-time player, hitting .388 with three homers and 30 RBIs. But his sophomore season ended early with a hamstring injury.
“It happened in the fourth game of the season on a charge play from shortstop,” he recalled. “All of a sudden it was almost like a lightning bolt running down my leg from my upper thigh.”
It was a partial tear of the hamstring. Bruno rehabbed for a month and gave it another try, but it was short-lived.
“In the second game I was back, my first at-bat I hit a ground ball to third base and on my first step out of the box I tore the hamstring muscle off the bone,” he said.
It ended his season. No surgery was required, but the rehab was intense. An athlete can play without the hamstring muscle attached, but he has to strengthen all the muscles around it. Bruno couldn’t do any baseball exercises for two months or even jog for three months.
In the meantime, Virginia moved on without him in the lineup and eventually won the ACC championship and played in the College World Series. It was frustrating for Bruno not to contribute and he felt he had let his teammates down. But he found a way to turn the situation into as much of a positive as he could.
“I talked to him and told him he had a choice,” O’Connor said. “He could either feel sorry for himself and go through the motions or he could get the most out of the year that he possibly could.
“(That choice) was to learn the game more, talk to his teammates, help his teammates, be very observant of the game and learn the game as much as you can. He certainly took advantage of every opportunity with us.”
So Bruno watched the game from the coaches’ perspective in the dugout.
“I learned a lot about the game that I hadn’t learned as a player,” he said. “Although it was a negative thing that I wasn’t on the field, I learned a lot of positives and not to take things for granted being out there every day.
“You learn pitchers’ tendencies and the way they pitch batters in certain counts that you don’t normally pick up when you’re playing every day. I kept a lot of pitching charts last year, picked up on some tendencies.”
O’Connor felt it was important to Bruno’s mental well-being to feel he was still a part of the team. When the Cavaliers advanced to the College World Series, he was there with his teammates, making the most of the experience.
“Coach O’Connor had told me early on, ‘Stephen, you’re not going to be able to contribute on the field but your team needs you in spirit and we’re not the same team without you,’” Bruno said. “I took that as a tremendous compliment, traveled with the team through the playoffs and ultimately to Omaha. It was like a once-in-a-lifetime thing because who knows if you’ll ever make it back to Omaha.”
Bruno’s rehab went so well that he was able to play about 20 games in the second half of a summer league in Indiana. That’s when he began to regain his confidence.
“The first 15 games you hesitated to stretch a double into a triple or really run out a ground ball to shortstop,” he said. “But the last five games of the summer I was able to have complete confidence in my physical capability and didn’t have any mental hesitation to go all out and play like I know how to play.”
Bruno felt 100 percent in fall practice and hasn’t seen any difference in his quickness or athletic ability. And he has hit the ball consistently well all season.
There has been one change, though. After Bruno’s injury, Chris Taylor established himself as Virginia’s everyday shortstop and returned this season. There was an opening at third base, though, so Bruno welcomed the switch.
“I’d never really played third before,” he said, “but as much as I want to help the team it was a no-brainer to move from shortstop to third base. Chris Taylor has definitely earned his spot, so there wasn’t even a thought in the back of my mind that I would play shortstop.
“It’s really different from short and second base but I love playing there and I learn something every day. It’s a lot less reaction time – you have to set your feet quicker and get yourself in a good position to receive the ball and to throw the ball. At short and second you have a little bit more time to set your feet and approach the ball. At third you just have to be ready at all times.”
O’Connor said Bruno’s athleticism enables him to play anywhere in the infield. Early on he missed some plays because of inexperience but he has improved steadily during the season.
“I think he’s an exceptional third baseman now,” O’Connor said.
Bruno is in an unusual situation. Because he was given a medical redshirt last season, he’s a sophomore in eligibility but can still be drafted this summer because he has been in school three years.
If that happens, he will have to decide whether to sign or to come back for his fourth year and gain some more experience since this has been his only season as an everyday player. O’Connor said he would like to find a way to move him back to the middle infield if he does return.
“I haven’t thought much about what might happen in the future,” Bruno said. “It’s really what we’re doing now and what I can contribute to the team. Decisions will be made when they need to be made.”
Right now Bruno is focused on the games with Maryland and then the ACC Championship in Greensboro next week.
“I know we have the talent and competitive edge to make it to Omaha with this year’s team,” he said. “It would be great to be able to go back with this team (and play). It’s one game at a time. We’ll take care of what we can control, playing hard and being aggressive every day, and hope for the best.”
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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