May 15, 2017
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- For the University of Virginia baseball team, a new phase of the season started over the weekend.
Final exams ended Friday at UVA, which means head coach Brian O'Connor's players can devote more attention to their sport of choice. They're delighted to do so.
"It's the best time of the season," junior pitcher Bennett Sousa said Sunday afternoon. "You're basically playing minor league, major league baseball now."
O'Connor said: "Certainly they're students first and athletes second. They executed their final exams, and they're excited just to play baseball."
A long Saturday at the ballpark produced a doubleheader split for the 10th-ranked Cavaliers, who dropped the opener of their ACC series with Miami 5-1 and then won the second game 13-6 at Davenport Field.
On Mother's Day, the Wahoos stayed hot. They broke open a tie game with four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning and defeated the Hurricanes 7-4 to capture their fifth straight ACC series.
"For us to respond like we did today, I was just proud of our guys," O'Connor said. "Huge series win for us coming out of final exams."
Virginia's final non-conference game of the regular season is Tuesday night, when Richmond (17-32) visits Davenport Field. Then the schedule gets really interesting.
"We're planning to be on the road for a while," O'Connor said.
On Wednesday morning, the Cavaliers (38-12 overall, 16-11 ACC) will fly to Atlanta, where they'll conclude the regular season with a three-game series against Georgia Tech (25-24, 10-17), starting Thursday night.
From Atlanta, the `Hoos will head straight to Louisville, where the ACC tournament will be played next week. Then will come the Cavaliers' 14th consecutive appearance in the NCAA tourney.
"The players are looking forward to it," O'Connor said. "They're having a wonderful season. They're playing very, very well, and they're excited to get after it down the stretch run here."
UVA's pitching rotation has been fluid throughout the season, and Sunday brought another twist. Instead of junior left-hander Adam Haseley (7-1, 3.58 ERA), junior right-hander Derek Casey started on the mound for the `Hoos.
Haseley, who played center field for all 27 innings of the Miami series, has a bone bruise in his left arm. The injury isn't serious, O'Connor said Sunday, and Haseley "could have easily pitched for us today. But based on what we have going on in front of us, I know that we're going to need Derek Casey, and I thought he did a really nice job there until the fifth inning."
In the top of the fifth, with the bases loaded and one out, Casey gave up a two-run double to Hunter Tackett that cut Virginia's lead to 3-2. Sousa, a junior left-hander, replaced Casey and retired the next two batters to quell the Hurricanes' rally.
Casey, who missed part of the 2015 season and all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, allowed six hits, walked four and struck out two against Miami (25-26, 13-13) in his first weekend start since April 21.
"Do you sleep better at night if you know everybody's consistent in the rotation and you're running the same guys out there all the time like it's happened before?" O'Connor said. "Sure. But [the pitching situation] has been exciting and fun to try to figure out.
"It's been interesting, and I have a feeling it's going to be that way for the rest of the year."
To reach their postseason goals, O'Connor said, the Cavaliers will need a number of pitchers to contribute.
"There's no question," O'Connor said. "This was a great game for Derek Casey to start, and I thought he pitched really well ... I thought it was a great opportunity for him, and I felt like he gave us a chance to win."
For the season, Casey is 3-1, with a 3.81 ERA. Of his 11 starts, seven have been against non-conference opponents.
"It's great to be playing again," said Casey, who learned Sunday morning that he would start against Miami. "I've had some ups and downs, obviously, but I'm trying to have more ups than downs, and going into postseason play I want to be at my best."
In the fifth, with two Miami runners on and one out, UVA pitching coach Karl Kuhn walked out to the mound to confer with Casey, who had thrown 91 pitches. Casey then walked Romy Gonzalez on four pitches, loading the bases and bringing up Tackett, the Hurricanes' designated hitter.
O'Connor said he and Kuhn discussed pulling Casey at that point, but Virginia was leading 3-0, "and he had one out and the bases loaded. There's going to be many times the rest of the season we're going to ask him to pitch out of that.
"When you look at these things as a coach, you look at it as, `What do we have to do to win that individual game?' But also the development of a player is really important, because I know what we're going to need out of Derek Casey two and three weeks from now.
"If you lift him at that time, you don't give him an opportunity to pitch out of it."
In this case, Casey could not escape trouble, but his teammates saved him as Virginia secured its eighth straight series win over Miami.
After an error by UVA second baseman Andy Weber helped the `Canes tie the game at 3-3 in the top of the eighth, he came to the plate in the bottom half of the inning. Weber singled into right field, and Cameron Simmons scored from second to make it 4-3.
Later in the inning, sophomore Jake McCarthy, whose solo home run had put UVA up 1-0 in the third, drove in another run on a fielder's choice. A throwing error compounded Miami's problems, and by the end of the inning Virginia led 7-3.
"I was just trying to pick us up and pick me up," Weber said. "I wasn't trying to do too much, hit a home run or anything. I got a pitch over the plate to hit, and it just went in the right place."
O'Connor said: "This game of baseball is full of second chances. There in the top of the eighth inning, Miami's executing the bunt, we throw the ball to first base and Weber drops the ball, a routine play. But then he steps to the plate in the bottom of the eighth and gets the chance to knock in the go-ahead run for his team and doesn't back down and looks forward to the opportunity.
"That's what it's about. When you see those kinds of things on the field out of your team, you feel good about what you have and excited about moving forward."
A win over Richmond on Tuesday night would keep intact the Cavaliers' unbeaten record in midweek games this season.
"I think we just come out with a winning mentality every day," Weber said. "Whether it's midweek or weekend, we're playing with the same mentality."
O'Connor said: "We take a lot of pride in [believing] that every game counts. If you want to do things like make the NCAA tournament, potentially host and some years potentially be a top-eight national seed, you have to take care of business in those middle-of-the-week games.
"It goes back to the mentality of trying to do everything you can to win the game in front of you."
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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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