May 10, 2014
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The first one came on Feb. 13, 2004, in Greensboro, N.C., where UVa defeated North Carolina A&T 10-7 at War Memorial Stadium. Brian O'Connor hasn't forgotten.
"I absolutely remember win No. 1," he said Friday night at Davenport Field.
That game in Greensboro marked O'Connor's debut as Virginia's head baseball coach, and the victories have far outnumbered the losses since then as he's built one of the nation's premier programs.
He reached another milestone Friday night, this time at home. Top-ranked UVa opened its three-game series with ACC rival Georgia Tech by rallying for a 4-3 win before a crowd of 4,040. That gave O'Connor his 500th victory, a feat of which his players were unaware until the postgame press conference.
"I didn't know he had 500," senior Austin Young said. "That's awesome to be part of that."
"That's amazing," junior Mike Papi said. "Averaging 50 or so wins a season, that's phenomenal."
O'Connor, 43, is 500-170-2 in 11 seasons at UVa. He's guided the Wahoos to the NCAA tournament 10 times and to the College World Series twice. Only one coach in ACC history has reached the 500-victory mark faster: Florida State's Mike Martin.
O'Connor's top assistants -- associate head coach Kevin McMullan and pitching coach Karl Kuhn -- have been with him since that first game in 2004.
"Listen, what 500 wins means is great players that are coachable, No. 1, and loyal assistant coaches," O'Connor said. "Those wins have more to do with those people, our assistant coaches and our players that we have played here the last 11 years, than anything.
"I'm proud of that and proud of what we've been able to do with the continuity of our coaching staff and bringing in quality players that want to play the game the right way and want to win championships."
Of his 500 victories, 87 have been by a single run. The `Hoos are 12-3 in one-run games this season. They trailed 3-2 after six innings Friday night, but in the bottom of the seventh Papi drove home Kenny Towns and John La Prise with a two-out single to right field.
Virginia improved to 19-6 in ACC play and 39-9 overall.
"As a team, we just have a calm [mentality], always ready to strike," said Papi, who went 2 for 4. "We're never really out of the game, and we always have that mentality that we're never out of it and we're going to battle till we give up all 27 outs."
On a night when starter Nathan Kirby struggled with his command, Young, Whit Mayberry and Nick Howard dominated out of the bullpen. They combined to allow no hits and no runs in the final 3.1 innings.
"I feel proud that that's been, I feel, one of the trademarks of our program," O'Connor said, "that our guys fight and find a way and they don't give up, and they execute late, and obviously we're good on the mound late in the game and have been for quite some time."
Of the Cavaliers' runs, three came on two-out hits Friday night.
"To really be a championship ball club, that's what you have to do," O'Connor said, "get clutch hits with two outs and runners in scoring position.'
Game 2 of the series is Saturday. With rain expected in the afternoon, the starting time has been moved from 4 p.m. to noon. The players are due at Davenport at 8:50 a.m., O'Connor said after a game that ended around 9 p.m. Friday, but that doesn't concern him.
"They're young," he said. "They'll be ready to go. It's more the coaches that need their sleep than they do."
O'Connor tinkered with his lineup Friday night, starting sophomore Joe McCarthy in place of junior Brandon Downes in center. Downes, who hit .316 in 2013, has dropped to .215 this season.
"I just made the decision to give him a night off," O'Connor said. "He's battling, and what people don't know is Brandon's had a pretty significant wrist injury all year that he's battled through for his team. I just felt that he needed to sit and watch the game a little bit. He'll get back in there, and I think Brandon Downes is going to be a key component for the remainder of our season."
McCarthy, who typically starts in right field, went 3 for 4 and looked comfortable defensively in center. Most satisfying to O'Connor, though, might have been the performance of Young, a 6-4, 225-pound right-hander from Mechanicsville.
Young replaced Kirby with two outs in the sixth. The Yellow Jackets (29-21, 14-14) led 3-2 and had runners on first and second. Young needed only one pitch to retire Ryan Peurifoy, who had hit an RBI single in the fifth, on a fly ball to center.
"Georgia Tech's got a really good, aggressive offensive team, and Austin Young came in and I thought was terrific," O'Connor said. "He held the ball right there for us at a pivotal time and allowed us to take the lead, and Whit and Nick did their thing."
Young said: "It's a real confidence-booster when Coach Oak can put me back out there in those situations."
As a junior, Young made 28 appearances out of the bullpen, posting a 5-0 record and 2.25 earned-run average. But he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome in his non-throwing arm last summer, which limited his availability in the fall and early this season.
Young has made only 14 appearances this year, but "I've been getting stronger throughout the season," he said.
O'Connor said: "Certainly tonight, and I really feel like the last two or three weeks, he has been back to the form that he was last year, before he got hurt at the end of the year and didn't pitch much. I think it's a big key. He's been in a lot of big ball games for us. The role he pitched in tonight was the role that he pitched in last year, and he was terrific at it, and it gives us another option. Otherwise we would have had to [use Mayberry in a longer stint]. Now you have everybody available for [Saturday]."
Mayberry, a fifth-year senior, struck out the side in the eighth. Howard, a junior right-hander who's an All-America candidate at closer, walked the first batter he faced in the ninth. But he went to his slider and struck out the next two Jackets. After his first wild pitch of the season, Howard retired Arden Pabst on a fly ball to seal No. 500 for O'Connor.
"Really a great team win in all facets of the game," O'Connor said. "We found a way."