Virginia baseball hopes its bats wake up at College World Series


John Hicks, left, is greeted by teammate Danny Hultzen after he hit a solo home run for Virginia’s lone run Tuesday night. Hultzen, hitting .133 since the start of super regionals, is just one of the Cavaliers struggling at the plate lately. (Eric Francis/AP)
June 22, 2011

Before Tuesday night’s 7-1 loss to South Carolina in the College World Series, the Virginia baseball team had trailed by more than one run after the first inning four times this season. The Cavaliers had trailed by more than two runs after the first inning just once.

So on Wednesday, as the players tried to put their most recent defeat behind them and focus on their elimination game Thursday night against California, several of them took consolation in the fact that Tuesday’s dismal offensive performance was an aberration, one they don’t plan on experiencing again during their stay here.

Thanks in large part to two Virginia errors, South Carolina tallied three runs in the top of the first Tuesday, and the Cavaliers’ response when their turn came at the plate was uncharacteristic of a lineup that entered the CWS ranked No. 5 in the nation in runs and No. 8 in hits.

“We have a certain approach when we go up to bat, and usually we’re very aggressive,” senior right fielder David Coleman said. “I didn’t see a lot of that, including from myself [against South Carolina]. We weren’t really jumping on fastballs like we usually do and attacking and taking the fight to the pitcher. When that happens, it’s hard to flip the switch on later in the game, and we couldn’t do it.” 

The anticipated response from a team that “got punched in the mouth,” as Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor put it, might be to grow anxious at the plate, eager to close deficits with single swings.

But against the Gamecocks, the Cavaliers’ hitters took the opposite approach. They became more selective — too selective, O’Connor said — and started to hold back on pitches at which they otherwise likely would have swung. 

In the bottom of the first, Virginia’s leadoff hitter, Chris Taylor, struck out looking at a fastball. O’Connor said Taylor — who went 2 for 4 Tuesday and has been one of the Cavaliers’ hottest hitters of late — never takes fastballs.

“When one batter does it, it really has an effect on the rest of the lineup,” said Coleman, who was not speaking specifically about Taylor. “You see some guys being passive at the plate, and it’s hard to come out in the fifth, after a bunch of other guys have been doing it, and change that.  

“It really sets a tone, and that’s what the leadoff batter is for. You’re trying to set a tone for the lineup. Some nights that happens, and unfortunately it happened last night.”

While O’Connor said the passive plate approach he saw from his lineup early on against South Carolina was limited to Tuesday night, several of the players who bat in the top half of the Cavaliers’ lineup have suffered through recent hitting struggles. 

Since the start of Virginia’s super regional series against California Irvine, left fielder John Barr, who bats second, has hit .188. Designated hitter Danny Hultzen, who bats fifth, has hit .133 during that span.

Perhaps the most prominent Virginia hitter experiencing a slump is third baseman Steven Proscia, who bats in the cleanup spot. For most of the spring, Proscia’s offensive output has been prodigious. He is tied with catcher John Hicks for the team lead in home runs and RBI. He was named the ACC tournament MVP. 

But in the past five games, Proscia has collected two hits in 18 at-bats (.111). On Tuesday, he went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts.

“I think I’m trying to over-swing a little bit and trying to kill the ball, rather than just hit it,” Proscia said. “It comes with not having a couple hits in a couple games and trying to do too much, trying to put one over the fence or trying to hit a ball in the gap when really all you’ve got to do is be up there and relax and have a nice, easy swing.” 

On Thursday, Virginia will square off against California right-hander Dixon Anderson, who was selected by the Washington Nationals in the ninth round of this year’s MLB draft. The Cavaliers have no say in how or when Anderson offers his fastball or off-speed pitches. All they can do is worry about their own approach.

“The percentages are always against the hitters, but the things we can control are being aggressive and being disciplined in the zone and obviously being opportunistic,” Virginia hitting coach Kevin McMullan said. “Those are the things that make a difference this time of year, and we will continue to have that plan in mind. And hopefully we can execute the plan.”

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