The expectations are high every year for the Virginia baseball team, but the 2008 season presents a new challenge for the Cavaliers. Sixteen newcomers join a core of talented veterans from the 2007 squad which went 45-16 and made the school’s fourth-consecutive NCAA regional appearance.
“We have worked hard to reach four straight NCAA regionals and host three of them, so we have set the bar high, which is what we want as coaches and players,” fifth-year head coach Brian O'Connor said. “This is a unique year in that we have 16 new players in our program, so just about half the team is new, although we have a veteran infield back and a core of veteran pitchers. We expect great things this year and a lot of it will depend on how these new players adapt to this level of college baseball.”
The newcomers include 14 freshmen and sophomore transfers Ryan Smith and Franco Valdes, both catchers. Virginia loses 10 letterwinners from 2007, including five who were taken in the Major League Baseball draft. Filling those shoes will not be easy, but it will be necessary for Virginia to stay among the nation’s elite.
“The incoming class is a very talented group,” O’Connor said. “Some of them will be ready to make contributions right away for us. For the most part the group is going to be able to come in and make an impact they’re going to have to. We’ll have all new faces in our outfield and behind the plate and a number of new pitchers.”
The new players join a solid nucleus of players, highlighted by All-America pitcher Jacob Thompson and second-team All-ACC second baseman David Adams. Fifteen letterwinners return from the 2007 team, including the entire infield (Adams, SS Greg Miclat, 3B/SS Tyler Cannon, 1B Jeremy Farrell and 3B Patrick Wingfield).
Like recent Virginia teams, the team will be led by the pitching staff, which has ranked among the nation’s top three in ERA in three of the last four years and posted a 2.81 ERA in 2007. Thompson anchors the starting rotation, while seniors Michael Schwimer and Jake Rule lead the bullpen staff.
Virginia will lean on its infield to provide veteran leadership for the team. Juniors Greg Miclat (.376, 34 RBI, 32 SB) and David Adams (.372, 5 HR, 43 RBI) team up to form one of the top middle infield combinations in the nation. Miclat, after undergoing shoulder surgery late last season, should be healthy for the start of the season. Adams played in all but one game last year, then finished in the top 10 in batting in the Cape Cod League over the summer. The two led Virginia in hitting last year and each provides a solid glove and strong throwing arm.
“There is a lot of depth on our infield and that’s where the veteran leadership is on our field,” O’Connor said. “Two years ago, we had a veteran outfield and an all-new infield where we started three freshmen. It has flip-flopped now, but two years ago we also won the most games ever in our history.”
Junior Jeremy Farrell (.349, 2 HR, 16 RBI) figures to start at first base. After missing over half the 2007 season with an injury, he is at full strength and should provide a big bat in the middle of the Cavaliers’ batting order. Sophomore Tyler Cannon (.279, 32 RBI) came on strong as the ’07 season progressed and will be an option and third base and shortstop after filling in for an injured Miclat last year.
Patrick Wingfield (.297, 3 HR, 30 RBI) started at third last year and provides another option at the hot corner. Redshirt freshman Corey Hunt and true frosh Phil Gosselin each should see time as well.
The outfield provides the Cavaliers with their biggest question mark. After losing all four starting outfielders from 2007, Virginia will depend on its newcomers to fill the void. Freshmen David Coleman, Dan Grovatt, Jarrett Parker and John Barr all are battling for starting positions, while Wingfield and Gosselin each could shift from the infield and earn some time in the outfield as well. Redshirt freshman Mark Riffee also will compete for playing time.
“Coming out of fall ball, I felt like David Coleman really showed consistency and ability to handle this level of baseball right away,” O’Connor said. “He’s a player that I believe will be somewhere in our outfield right away. Jarrett Parker has handled himself really well, and I think he will factor in quite a bit.
“Dan Grovatt and John Barr both are very similar in that they are good athletes who can run, and it’s a matter of how quickly of they handle the ups and downs of the college baseball season as freshmen. You’ll also see Patrick Wingfield bounce out there a little bit in left field since he is a veteran who we would like to keep in the lineup. Phil Gosselin is an infielder with a good bat who will compete for time out there as well. The wild card in this is Mark Riffee. He redshirted last year as a freshman and suffered a knee injury over the summer, but he is back and healthy, and I am excited to see how he competes in the preseason.”
Veteran catchers Beau Seabury and Ryan Hudson each graduated, creating an open competition behind the plate. Sophomore transfers Ryan Smith (Notre Dame) and Franco Valdes (Broward C.C.) each will battle for playing time, as will junior Will Campbell and Tyler Cannon, who worked diligently to learn the position in the fall.
“Ryan Smith really did a nice job this fall, as did Franco Valdes,” O’Connor said. “We’ve been working with Tyler Cannon to convert him to catching, and Will Campbell has done a nice job and improved a lot over the last year.
“Because of the change in college baseball with the condensed schedule and playing five or six games a week, you will see a lot more catchers. In the past, Beau Seabury caught 95 percent of our innings, but that won’t be the case this year. You will see Ryan Smith and Franco Valdes do the majority of the catching and Tyler Cannon could be an option once or twice a week.”
Virginia boasts its most pitching depth in the past five years, highlighted by the anchor of the staff, All-America right-hander Jacob Thompson (11-0, 1.50 ERA, 114 IP), who will return to his Friday starting role.
“Jacob has had two great years. Everybody always wants a Friday night starter like him, so we’re fortunate to have him,” O’Connor said. “He doesn’t need to do anything different than he has in the first two years just go out, compete and give his team the chance to win.”
The Cavaliers have several options to fill the other two weekend rotation spots. Senior southpaw Pat McAnaney (2-0, 3.34 ERA) made a big start for UVa in the NCAA Tournament and had a great fall season. Junior righthander Andrew Carraway (5-0, 3.60) pitched extremely well in the fall and also is poised to break into the rotation, while sophomore lefty Matt Packer (3-3, 4.22) held down the No. 2 spot in the rotation for much of 2007 and will look to keep his slot there. Neal Davis (2-1, 5.40), Jeff Lorick (2-1, 4.13) and Robert Poutier (0-0, 2.61) add depth and have starting experience to make a run at a spot in the rotation.
The bullpen lost the ACC’s all-time saves leader, Casey Lambert, to graduation, but senior righthanders Michael Schwimer (3-1, 2.77 ERA) and Jake Rule (6-4, 2.63 ERA) each were big contributors in the bullpen last year who figure to pick up the slack.
“Overall our pitching depth is the best it has been, and it’s going to need to be because of the change in the schedule,” O’Connor said. “We’re going to need more starters and options out of the bullpen. The key is who is going to solidify themselves in the No. 2 and 3 starter positions and who is going to take over Casey Lambert’s role out of the bullpen. We will need multiple pitchers who can throw the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. I am excited about our freshman pitching class. I believe many of them can pitch right away and compete for key roles.”
College baseball goes to a universal starting date (Feb. 22) this year, which will condense the schedule. The Cavaliers’ schedule features seven weeks in which they play two midweek games, in contrast to just one such week in 2007.
“It will be interesting to see how the new schedule works, but it is the same for everybody,” O’Connor said. “The schools in the south are starting to find out what it’s like for teams in the north to have the condensed schedule and not start until the last weekend in February and cram in all your games.
“It’s a compact schedule, but as a player that’s how I would really like it. From a position player standpoint, you’re playing all the time. The game is meant to be played every day, so hopefully your guys can get in a better groove because they are playing all the time.
“From a pitching standpoint, I think it is really good as well. If you need to have five starters in a week, it allows you to develop some of your young pitchers that possibly wouldn’t have an opportunity to pitch as much in that role had the schedule not been this way. So there are real advantages to it and I hope that by the end of the year our pitching depth will be even better because of this schedule.”
NOTING THE UVA SCHEDULE
With just two weeks of nonconference play prior to the start of the conference season, Virginia will spend the time at home, playing its first 10 games in 10 days at Davenport Field. UVa opens at home for the first time since 2002.
“When I knew the schedule was going to change for 2008, I really made an effort to get as many home games out of our league as possible,” O’Connor said. “We open up at home Feb. 22 and we have played at home on that weekend every year since I have been here, so I figured why not play at home.”
UVa will play a school-record 40 home games, including 25 of its 26 nonconference games. The Cavaliers have first-ever meetings with Siena and Stony Brook and also play Cornell for the first time since 1939. UVa also has midweek matchups with VCU and Coastal Carolina, each of whom participated in the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
“We have a lot of home games, a lot of in-state opponents and a lot of teams from up north who are down here traveling who will play us on a Tuesday and Wednesday,” O’Connor said. “We have some new opponents on the schedule who we haven’t seen in the last few years teams like Navy and Georgetown. The new scheduling has forced programs to branch out and play some teams they haven’t before.”
A LOOK AT THE ACC
The ACC led the country with seven teams in the 2007 NCAA Tournament, and it should be much of the same this year. North Carolina played in the College World Series championship series, while Clemson, Florida State, Miami, NC State and Wake Forest also joined Virginia in the tournament.
“The last couple of years the ACC has been ranked as one of the top leagues in the country, and I think it continues to get better every year,” O’Connor said. “The league, like every year, is going to be a challenge. It’s going to be a dogfight and all 30 games will be tough. Everybody has made their program better and will continue to do so. It’s a top league for a reason great teams, great players and great coaches.”
Florida State rotates back onto the UVa schedule this year, while Clemson shifts off. Virginia welcomes Boston College (March 21-23), Virginia Tech (March 28-30), Wake Forest (April 18-20), North Carolina (May 9-11) and Georgia Tech (May 15-17) to Davenport Field. The Cavaliers travel to NC State (March 7-9), Duke (March 14-16), Florida State (April 4-6), Maryland (April 11-13) and Miami (April 25-27).