Sept. 11, 2013
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Fall practice is under way for the UVa baseball team, and a familiar No. 7 is back at shortstop. Few sights are more comforting to the Cavaliers.
"It's great to have Branden Cogswell back out there competing this fall," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said Friday at Davenport Field.
For the first 47 games of last season, Cogswell played shortstop and batted leadoff, and the Wahoo went 39-8 with him in the starting lineup. Game No. 47 fell on the final night of April, and Cogswell went 2 for 4 in an 11-3 romp over VCU in Richmond, raising his batting average to .346.
Four days later, in practice, his season abruptly ended. And that dealt a damaging blow to UVa's bid to return to the College World Series for the first time since 2011, though Nick Howard and John La Prise performed admirably in Cogswell's absence.
"It's tough when you lose your shortstop like that," O'Connor said.
Cogswell fractured the middle finger of his throwing hand, an injury that required an operation. He had three pins inserted in his middle finger.
"Of all the fingers," he said. "It's the one that comes off the ball last. You kind of need that one. Any other one and I would have been out there."
The ACC tournament came and went, and then the NCAA regional in Charlottesville, and Cogswell remained a spectator, his finger not yet healed. Then came the NCAA super regional at Davenport Field. Had the best-of-three series between Virginia and Mississippi State unfolded differently, Cogswell might have written a happier ending to his sophomore season.
Cogswell was cleared to play in the super regional, but O'Connor, not convinced he was ready to return to the lineup, kept him on the bench for the opener, which the Bulldogs won 11-6.
The Cavaliers were designated the visiting team in the second game, and again Cogswell watched from the dugout. But if UVa had pulled even or taken the lead in the top of the ninth June 10, O'Connor planned to insert Cogswell at shortstop in the bottom half of the inning and move Howard to the mound.
"That would have been awesome," Cogswell said.
Alas for the `Hoos, they scored two runs in the ninth but needed three to extend the game. Mississippi State won 6-5 to advance to the College World Series, and Virginia ended the season with a 50-12 record.
"I really feel for the guy, that the season ended the way it did for him," O'Connor said. "Had we been playing in Omaha, he would have been out there. He had done such great things for our team. He was a terrific player last year and it was unfortunate what happened, but the great thing about this game is you get another chance. He's done great things for us already, and I think he's going to be even better this year."
After injuring his finger May 4, Cogswell said, he tried to continue practicing, "and I couldn't. Our trainer looked at it, and we realized something was wrong. We didn't know how severe it was. We thought it would be a week or two, and then we found out the diagnosis."
Eager to get back on the field, Cogswell headed north to the prestigious Cape Cod League soon after the Cavaliers' season ended. He played for the Harwich Mariners, along with his classmates Howard and Derek Fisher.
"I was anxious to get back out there," recalled Cogswell, who despite his injury made the All-ACC second team last season.
After his first year at UVa, Cogswell spent much of the summer in the Midwest, playing in the Northwoods League. He enjoyed that experience, and he treasured his time in New England.
"I had a great time up in the Cape with the team, the coaching staff, the people who were up there," Cogswell said. "It is the best league in the nation, and to be a part of that, to be in that league and to be competing every day with the best guys in the country, it's fun, it's an honor, and you get better. Even though you think you're having setbacks, you get better as a player and an individual."
In 33 games, Cogswell batted only .231, but that didn't concern him.
"The Cape, you're facing [college] teams' Friday night pitchers every night, and the kids out of the bullpen coming in, they're their top relievers," Cogswell said. "You're facing the best pitching in the country. That's the only way you're going to get better, with that experience."
O'Connor agreed. "When you look at the results up in the Cape Cod League, I don't put too much stock into it, because I know the level of arms that they're facing night in and night out up there. So it's a matter of them getting their at-bats and getting that experience. Certainly the more you see high-quality arms every day, the better you're going to get as a player."
Cogswell's season with Harwich ended early last month. Then he went to see his family in Ballston Lake, N.Y., near Albany.
"I'm an only child," Cogswell said, smiling. "The parents want me home, but I'm home for three or four days and I'm ready to get back down here, back in the routine."
The Cavaliers, who have made 10 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, are locks to begin the 2014 season ranked in the top 10 nationally. The foundation of the team is a superlative junior class that features Cogswell, Howard, Fisher, Mike Papi, Brandon Downes, Nate Irving and Kenny Towns.
"Expectations are expectations," Cogswell said. "We're going to come out there and get better every day, and we're going to take care of the team first, and we're going to try to be a championship ball club. And I know we can do that."
Come June, Cogswell figures to be selected in the Major League Baseball draft, along with many of his classmates. That can distract some juniors, but Cogswell is determined not to let his concentration lapse.
"Whatever the draft holds, the draft holds," he said. "There's a bunch of guys who are in the same boat, and we're not really looking at that right now. We're here to take care of business.
"I just personally look at it as you're taking care of business here with Virginia. That's what you gotta do. You gotta be here for your team. My thoughts have never been with the draft. When that time comes around, we'll still be playing baseball hopefully, and I'll still be taking care of this team and looking at trying to win a championship."
As in years past, O'Connor said, he will meet with his draft-eligible players during the school year, "and we're always talking about it. We're always making sure that they're conscious that it's about this team.
"The bottom line is, if you take care of the team, you will get what you deserve individually, and if they take that attitude -- and that's going to be an important part of this team, because of the talent we have that are third-years -- then everything will work out."
Cogswell's experience late last season, however painful, taught him a valuable lesson.
"Everyone's gone through their injuries," Cogswell said. "It just emphasizes the point that you gotta play every play, you gotta be in the moment every pitch, because you don't know when it's going to be your last, either for a period of time or your last day playing this game. You never know, and you gotta be out there giving it 100 percent every day."
FALL SCHEDULE: UVa will play two exhibition games at Davenport Field, as well as the intrasquad Orange and Blue World Series.
The first exhibition is Sept. 21, against High Point at 11 a.m. At 3:30 p.m. that day, Virginia meets VMI in football at Scott Stadium.
The second exhibition is Sept. 27, against the Ontario Blue Jays at 5 p.m.
The seven-game Orange and Blue World Series begins Oct. 1 and concludes Oct. 20. There is no admission charge for the exhibitions or the intrasquad games.