During its rise under Coach Brian O’Connor, the Virginia baseball program has come to know what life can be like as the No. 1 team in the country. The Cavaliers attained that lofty status twice — in 2010 and 2011.
Never before, though, had Virginia earned that sort of recognition from two different preseason publications, a distinction that changed when Baseball America and Perfect Game released their rankings last month.
So O’Connor, ever the pragmatist, made sure his team understood just how little the preseason ranking means as the Cavaliers look to return to the College World Series in Omaha for the third time in six years this season.
“That happens because you have a successful program and then all of a sudden you have an experienced team,” O’Connor said earlier this week ahead of his 11th season in Charlottesville. “That doesn’t mean all of a sudden somebody thinks you should win the national championship. A lot has to happen between now and then.”
But when Virginia opens the 2014 season Friday against Kentucky in a tournament in Wilmington, N.C., expectations will be high for a roster loaded with experienced talent.
The Cavaliers return all but one position player from a team that went 50-12 a year ago and lost to eventual national runner-up Mississippi State in the NCAA tournament’s super regionals, including five that earned preseason all-American honors of some kind this offseason — more than any other team in the country.
The middle of the lineup will be led by returning first-team all-American Mike Papi (.381, seven home runs, 57 RBIs in 2013), who could switch from the outfield to first base this season; and outfielders Joe McCarthy (.336, four home runs, 51 RBIs), Brandon Downes (.316, 10 home runs, 59 RBIs) and Derek Fisher (.293, seven home runs, 48 RBIs).
Any sort of batting order, though, will be hard to come by, at least initially. Even O’Connor can admit he’s dealing with an embarrassment of riches this season.
“There’s a lot of good options, maybe more options than we’ve had here before, maybe more versatility than we’ve ever had before,” he said, noting the middle of the infield remains in flux with returning starter Brandon Cogswell (.346) playing either shortstop or second base.
Replacing closer Kyle Crockett will be the biggest hole to fill as the season gets underway. Crockett was dominant last season, racking up 71 strikeouts and 12 saves in 29 innings en route to being picked in the fourth round of the 2013 Major League Baseball draft by the Cleveland Indians.
Junior Nick Howard, an All-Met from St. John’s who also plays third base, will get the first shot, although senior Whit Mayberry (St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes) could be in the mix as well.
Virginia also has sophomore Brandon Waddell (6-3, 3.96 ERA) back in the fold, and he is slated to start Friday’s season opener. Sophomores Nathan Kirby and Josh Sborz (McLean) will take the mound to start the Cavaliers’ other two games this weekend.
But unlike last season, when Waddell, Scott Silverstein (graduated) and Howard made up Virginia’s starting rotation for much of the year, O’Connor doesn’t believe “how we start the season will be anywhere near where we are at the end of the year.”
Highly touted freshman Conner Jones, selected by the San Diego Padres in the 21st round of the 2013 draft despite telling teams he planned to come to Charlottesville, will begin in the bullpen but could be a starter down the line.
He should have plenty of company when it comes to dealing with preseason hype.
“The past two years that I’ve been here it’s been totally different,” Fisher said. “We’ve come into it being a team that kind of has to prove ourselves. We haven’t really gotten much love outside [the ACC], which was fine. Quite frankly, I think it was pretty good for us. Now this year we’re kind of expected to do a lot. We can’t really think that we’re given anything.”