GREENSBORO, N.C.—Back in January, Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said he didn't feel like his Cavaliers were a Top 25-caliber club. But, he said, they could be at the end of the season.
"When you lose 70 percent of your innings, I don't see how you could justify (a preseason ranking," O'Connor said. "We lost our top four guys—they all threw over 70 innings. We don't have a returning catcher that's ever caught in this program.
"It's going to be fun to figure out. This team's going to have to grow."
The Cavs started off the season 11-8-1 overall and 2-4 in the ACC, but since getting swept by Florida State in their second conference series, they have gone 25-8. With Thursday's 3-2 win against Clemson in their ACC tournament opener, the Cavaliers have won 10 of their last 13 ACC games.
Not only are they a Top 25-caliber team, but they're in position to host a regional. This team has dramatically outperformed expectations; that's a testament to UVa.'s fine coaching staff, which masterfully guided the young Cavs through the rough patches and got them peaking at just the right time.
"I feel like this team over the last six weeks or so is playing its best baseball," O'Connor said Thursday. "Obviously we would have wanted to get out of the gate quick, but that didn't happen. We had a lot of learning that needed to be done. We needed to figure out the roles in our bullpen and get some of our young freshmen experience. Once those things started coming together, we thought we could have a good ballclub."
Playing well in the ACC tournament can have a springboard effect. Virginia's runs to the College World Series in 2009 and '11 were both kick-started with ACC tournament titles.
"We're just trying to play good baseball, play winning baseball and hopefully have a positive feeling and continue to move forward," O'Connor said. "The years that we have advanced the deepest in our season, we've won this tournament and played really good baseball in this tournament."
This team doesn't have the kind of firepower in the starting rotation or experience in the lineup that those two UVa. clubs had. Virginia's ace, Branden Kline, doesn't typically dominate the way Danny Hultzen could, and he didn't dominate Clemson, as the Tigers had baserunners in each of his seven innings. But he competed hard and made big pitches in big spots, even though his velocity dropped from the 88-93 range early into the 86-88 range by the middle innings. His changeup has become a very effective pitch for him, disappearing underneath bats. He thwarted Clemson rallies with inning-ending strikeouts in the third, fifth and seventh innings, showing he can miss bats when he needs to.
Losing starter Whit Mayberry to a season-ending injury midway through the season was a significant blow, and it's fair to wonder if the Cavs have the horses in the rotation to get back to Omaha with this team. But their bullpen has been a major asset all season, and the team's dogged spirit helps it overachieve.
"This has been a team all year that has been very opportunistic," O'Connor said. "We've never really pounded teams, put teams away a lot, but we've done what we've needed to do to win."
Miami Holds On To Beat UNC—Again
Thursday's second game had a familiar feel. The end result was far too familiar for North Carolina: another loss to Miami. The Hurricanes' 5-3 win improved them to 4-0 against the Tar Heels this season, and 10-1 against UNC over the last three seasons.
The simplest explanation for Miami's recent mastery of the Tar Heels is that the Hurricanes have been well-stocked with quality lefthanded pitching, and UNC annually relies heavily on lefthanded hitters to anchor its lineup. It's not that the Tar Heels can't beat southpaws—they have a number of lefthanded hitters who handle lefties just fine—but having quality lefthanded pitching certainly improves a team's chances of beating them.
But the game also felt queasily familiar for Miami coach Jim Morris in the ninth inning. A day earlier, Miami's bullpen let a 2-1 lead against North Carolina State slip away, losing on a walk-off bases-loaded walk.
So Morris wasn't exactly breathing easy when the Tar Heels loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth against lefthander A.J. Salcines—with the dangerous Colin Moran coming to the plate. Morris said he was experiencing a little deja vu at that point.
"It came down to the same type thing. But thank goodness A.J. made a pitch. He's a young guy who got the award for outstanding pitcher on our team—it's unusal for a reliever to get that for us. It was important today for him to have enough guts to pitch and get it done there at the end. It takes a special person to pitch in the ninth inning with the game on the line, he's done that a lot for us."
Salcines struck out Moran looking on a borderline pitch that might have been low to end the game, sending UNC coach Mike Fox out to voice his displeasure. Though the game was over, umpire Scott Erby—who wasn't the home-plate umpire—stopped and appeared to bait Fox, then ejected him. So by NCAA rule he must serve an automatic one-game suspension Saturday against N.C. State. Fox let his frustration with the umpires show a bit when a reporter asked him later where he thought the pitch missed the zone.
"You can look at the video," he said. "You look and come back and tell me. The kids should decide the game.
"They think there's no emotion involved here, after the game, apparently—you're not supposed to say anything. It's hard to play this game without emotion. Sometimes you have to let things go."
It's worth noting that coaches around the ACC have described Erby in the past as confrontational and too eager to eject coaches—this is nothing new. He probably should have granted Fox a bit of leeway in an emotional situation Thursday, rather than appearing to go out of his way to pick a fight with Fox—who was addressing home plate umpire Randy Harvey, not Erby.
The dramatic ending somewhat overshadowed a nice pitching matchup between lefthanders Kent Emanuel of UNC and Steven Ewing of Miami. They have similar styles, working in the mid-80s and mixing in their quality offspeed stuff effectively, but Ewing got the better of this matchup. He held the Tar Heels to one run until the seventh, when freshman Grayson Atwood came off the bench to deliver a two-run homer to left, tying the game at 3-3.
But Miami answered right back in the bottom of the frame, as Dale Carey took Emanuel deep to left, providing the final margin of victory. Two pitches earlier, Carey had fouled a ball off his left foot, causing him to spend a few moments on the ground. That made the home run a little sweeter.
"I felt good because I didn't have to run out anything," he said. "So that was a relief, and it was a big hit."
Morris said the team bus was as quiet as he could ever remember after Wednesday's loss, so Thursday's victory provided an emotional lift.
So did the return of slugger Peter O'Brien, who had been sidelined since April 15 with a broken wrist. O'Brien played first base and went 1-for-4 with a single in the fourth inning.
"I've been out of it for five or six weeks. This is my first game seeing live pitching, and I felt real comfortable out there," O'Brien said. "I've still got o get comfortable out there, I guess you'd say. But today felt great, and I'm going to be ready again tomorrow."
Fischer Leads Deacons Past Wolfpack
Two weeks ago, Wake Forest's NCAA tournament hopes looked dim. The Demon Deacons entered their final series against a hot Clemson team with a 10-17 ACC record, trailing Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech for the final spot in the conference tournament.
The Deacons swept Clemson to barge into the tournament, and suddenly their at-large case had life. But Wake Forest coach Tom Walter knew his team couldn't afford an 0-3 showing in Greensboro. Wake lost its opener against UNC, but it beat N.C. State convincingly Thursday, 7-3. Now the Demon Deacons should be able to exhale, regardless of how the rest of the tournament plays out.
"I think that we belong in the NCAA tournament, yes I do," Walter said. "I think this win got us there. I think without this win, we probably would have been on the outside looking in."
Wake's strong finishing kick echoes that of sophomore righthander Jack Fischer, who spent most of the season in the bullpen but has emerged as a trustworthy starter down the stretch. Fischer has increased his career-high for innings pitched in three straight outings, going seven against Miami on May 12, then 7 2/3 against Clemson last week, and finally working into the ninth against N.C. State on Thursday. He wound up holding the potent Wolfpack offense to three runs on eight hits and three walks in eight-plus innings, striking out five. He induced 14 groundball outs by pitching heavily off his lively 85-88 mph sinker.
In the middle innings, Fischer said, he "stopped overthrowing, I kind of let my movement work for me, let my defense work behind me. I got a better feel for all four of my pitches. I tried to get ahead and let the batters get themselves out."
Walter said that when the Deacs play good defense behind Fischer, he's a very good pitcher, because his sinker gets so many grounders.
"The thing about Jack is he's such a good athlete that he makes adjustments pitch to pitch, and that's something you can't teach," Walter said.
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