April 21, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Forty games into its 11th season under head coach Brian O'Connor, the UVa baseball team has 33 victories and is ranked No. 1 nationally in most polls. The Cavaliers have won all seven of their ACC series and continue to set attendance records at Davenport Field.
And yet ...
"I still think we gotta get better," O'Connor said Sunday afternoon.
The skipper would not have been satisfied, but his mood would have been different had the weekend ended on a better note for his club. After edging North Carolina 3-2 on Friday night and 3-1 on Saturday afternoon, Virginia dropped the series finale on Easter Sunday, losing 4-2 before a crowd of 4,681.
The series drew 14,282 fans, a record for a three-game series at Davenport. That surpassed the mark of 13,947 set last weekend against Clemson.
The Wahoos, who fell to 16-5 in ACC play, managed only six hits off UNC pitchers Zac Gallen and Reilly Hovis. Virginia had runners on first and third with one out in the first inning against Gallen, a freshman, but could not push a run across.
"The first half of the game, the first five or six innings, is where we needed to capitalize on our opportunities," O'Connor said. "They have a young freshman out on the mound. We got two walks in the first inning, and we just couldn't capitalize and, quite frankly, let `em off the hook. And he settled in.
"Sometimes that's the way it works: You either capitalize on those opportunities and get some momentum going, or unfortunately let them get into a groove."
Junior Michael Russell crushed a towering two-run home run off UVa starter Brandon Waddell (5-2) in the fifth inning, giving the Tar Heels (23-17, 10-11) their first lead of the series. Russell went 3 for 5 on Sunday and 6 for 13 in the series.
"He's an absolutely great hitter, as you could see the whole weekend," Waddell said.
Hovis, who pitched the final 3.2 innings for UNC, refused to allow the Cavaliers to mount a comeback. The sophomore right-hander retired the last 10 batters he faced.
"Certainly you feel good winning the series, and if you continue to do that, you're going to have an opportunity to win this [Coastal Division] regular-season title," O'Connor said. "Obviously you have to deal with the disappointment of how this series ended. When you have a chance to beat a good ballclub in your ballpark, you have a chance to sweep them, you hope for a little bit better."
The Cavaliers made two errors Sunday -- both in the seventh inning -- but their defense has been exceptional this spring. So has their pitching. But Virginia's offense, so explosive last season, has waxed and waned this year.
In 2013, when the `Hoos finished 50-12 and advanced to an NCAA tournament super regional, they hit .312 and averaged 7.9 runs per game. With most of the same players in the lineup, Virginia is averaging 5.5 runs and hitting .273 this season.
"We need to be consistent with what our approach is [at the plate]," O'Connor said. "I think what we've been addressing, and I hope at some point it sinks in, we've just been way too passive. When you're passive like that, it's really tough to get yourself going.
"We had two errors today. We don't do that very often, and I'm not concerned about that area at all. I'm more consumed with our offensive approach, and that we get it going."
Of the Cavaliers who have started at least 20 games this season, only junior Branden Cogswell (.300) and sophomore John La Prise (.390) are hitting at least .300, though junior Mike Papi (.298) is close.
"We know we're talented," junior Derek Fisher said Sunday. "We are talented. We just need to have confidence in ourselves."
Fisher figures to help the offense increase its production. After missing 25 games with a wrist injury, the 6-3, 210-pound Fisher returned to the starting lineup Sunday. He went 0 for 3, but he's hitting .315 this season.
"When he was in there at the beginning of the year, I thought he was really swinging the bat as good as he has on a consistent basis since he's been [at UVa]," O'Connor said. "So certainly he's a presence in the lineup. He's somebody that has a lot of experience. He's another left-handed bat. I thought when he swung the bat today, there were some pretty good passes he put on the ball.
"Certainly we're going to need him to perform. He's an All-American kind of player, and when you get him back in there and he gets more at-bats, I hope that it can make a big difference for us."
Fisher, who broke a bone in his right wrist during UVa's series with Duke in early March, underwent surgery March 17.
"I was in a cast for two weeks, and that was probably the worst time ever," Fisher recalled Sunday. "I wasn't able to do anything. Then I came back and I got the stitches out, and I [had a smooth] road to recovery from then."
For Fisher, whom the Texas Rangers drafted in the sixth round after his senior season in high school, it was his first operation.
"First time I'd ever missed a significant amount of games and was told I couldn't play, regardless of what my body was telling me," he said.
"Being able to watch this game from this perspective for five weeks is something that, quite frankly, I haven't experienced. And I think it was really good for me. You see the game from a completely different angle. You learn from other people's mistakes, and quite frankly we're not playing the way we want to and/or should be. But being able to see the game from a completely different view has definitely taught me a lot more than I knew prior to my injury."
Fisher began taking batting practice again a few days ago, and the sessions went so well that O'Connor put him back in the lineup Sunday. Fisher played left field and in the seventh inning made a terrific running catch in foul territory.
"We'll assess him again tomorrow and see how he handled playing today," O'Connor said Sunday, "but hopefully he can get back in there on a consistent basis."
Virginia, which leads the ACC's Coastal Division, plays Atlantic Division leader Florida State in a three-game series that starts Friday night in Tallahassee. First, however, come two midweek games for the `Hoos.
UVa meets VCU at The Diamond in Richmond at 7 p.m. Tuesday. A day later, Virginia hosts Richmond in a 6 p.m. game at Davenport Field.
The Rams are 28-9, and it "should be a great environment" at The Diamond, O'Connor said.
"We'll absolutely have our hands full on Tuesday night, but that's what we need, quite frankly. We need to play good people. Those are the kind of people that you play at championship time, and you might as well get used to that. I think it's a terrific opportunity for us down there, and it's an opportunity for us to play in front of a lot of fans and alums down in Richmond."
Those fans would like nothing better than to see the Cavaliers get hot at the plate. Fisher believes a breakthrough is imminent.
"With the struggles we're having now, thankfully we have the best pitching staff in the entire country," Fisher told reporters Sunday, "and soon enough you guys are going to see we have the best offense in the entire country."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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