Evaluators identified Friday’s game with East Carolina righthander Jeff Hoffman squaring off against one of the deepest and most potent lineups in the country, No. 1-ranked Virginia, as one of the best matchups on the college calendar.
With a large contingent of scouting decision-makers present, Virginia center fielder Brandon Downes stole the show, hitting a pair of solo home runs in Virginia’s cavernous Davenport Field (Park Factor of 80, the lowest in the ACC) against Hoffman.
The performance of Downes, who entered the year ranked No. 53 on the college top 100 prospects, will likely leave a lasting impression on evaluators. He has a well-rounded set of tools and skills that play.
Downes, who led Virginia with 10 home runs last year, squared up a 96 mph fastball from Hoffman in the center of the plate and drove into the left-center field bleachers.
“I faced him last year and he gave it to me pretty good,” Downes said. “He struck me out three times chasing breaking balls. Last year he pretty much embarrassed me. It was pretty bad. I wanted to come out and have a good approach and stay in the middle of the field.”
The righthanded-hitting Downes led off the sixth and saw two same-side Hoffman changeups to start his third plate appearance. On a 3-2 count, Hoffman came back with another 86 mph changeup that was middle-in, and Downes homered to left.
From a slightly open setup, hands that load high and a short stride at the plate, Downes has a quick bat and line-drive oriented swing and works inside the ball. He entered the year with a career .318/.401/.535 line. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Downes has a trim, athletic build with present strength and room for additional strength gains in his upper body that portends well for his potential power production.
Downes grounded out in his two other plate appearances, running home to first in the 4.2-4.3 second range. He is a solid-average runner out of the box but a plus runner underway. An evaluator said that he believes Downes has a chance to stick in center field in pro ball. He also has a solid-average arm that can flash above-average.
• Virginia first baseman Mike Papi had arguably the hardest hit ball of the day. The lefthanded-hitting Papi, who has natural power to the opposite-field gap, crushed a 94-mph, elevated fastball from Hoffman on the outer third to the left-center field gap for a double that drove in Virginia’s only other run in a 3-2 victory. Papi has a quiet setup at the plate, short stride and easy swing. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Papi has physicality throughout his large frame and a strong lower half. He projects to hit for at least average power, with more doubles than home runs, and has a .348/.476/.538 career line. Although his speed does not play at this level, Papi posted a plus home-to-first time Friday when he got out of the box well on a groundout. Papi runs well enough to handle a corner outfield spot and his arm could play in right field.
• Although preseason first-team All-American and potential first-round pick Derek Fisher went 0-4 on the day, he showcased his plus speed. The lefthanded-hitting Fisher posted home-to-first times of 4.00 and 4.09 with short strides and good stride turnover.
• Righthander Nick Howard, who was originally slated to start on Sundays, has been moved the bullpen and came on to retire the final three hitters. The quick-armed Howard sat 93-95 mph with his fastball from a high three-quarters arm slot during his one-inning stint. Howard used a higher leg kick than last summer, and his delivery has greater momentum and better direction to the plate, after throwing across his body some on the Cape. Working from the far first-base side of the rubber, Howard commanded his fastball well, especially to his glove side. His 78-81 mph curveball showed the makings of an average pitch. It had 12-6 shape but lacked power at times. The two-way player also showed power to all fields in batting practice.
• Hoffman showed all the ingredients he did in his impressive outing last week but was not as precise with his command Friday.
His fastball velocity touched 97 and sat 94-96 mph through his first 47 pitches and three innings before settling in at 92-95 from the fourth through the end of his outing and 107 pitches.
Against a heavy lefthanded-hitting team, including five of the top six hitters in the lineup, Hoffman relied heavily on his plus changeup, throwing the offering 27 times against 19 breaking balls. He threw the offering from a higher arm slot than last week, a slot closer to his fastball slot. His changeup sat 85-89 and touched 90 on a strikeout of No. 3 hitter Joe McCarthy to end the first. Hoffman displayed tremendous confidence in the offering, throwing it to righthanded hitters and tripling up on the pitch against Papi. He didn’t have the same command of the pitch as last week, throwing strikes on 13 of the 27 pitches (48 percent).
The righthander’s breaking ball flashed at least plus but did not play at plus consistently.
For the second straight week, Hoffman’s premium athleticism has enabled him to make a defensive play few other pitchers could make when he tracked down a foul popup up the third-base line.
Hoffman was not getting called strikes at the bottom of the strike zone, which is where he can pitch effectively with his fastball plane. He often worked away from lefthanded hitters, locating to his arm side. 57 percent of his pitches were strikes and he generated eight swings and misses (7.5 percent). He walked three (10.7 percent) of the 28 hitters he faced and struck out six (21.4 percent).
He will throw next against Western Kentucky.