CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- For the Virginia Cavaliers, the start of the 2014 season was quite different than the year before. In fact, this year's squad began in a position unique to any team in UVa baseball history. While the 2013 Cavaliers weren't ranked in the top 25 in most preseason polls, this year's Cavaliers were voted the No. 1 team in the nation by both Baseball America and Perfect Game USA heading into the season, a first for the program.
Returning eight starters who batted a combined .312 in 2013 and ranked top 10 in the nation in scoring, doubles, triples, slugging percentage and walks, the offense was expected to lead the Wahoos. If a question mark existed, pundits said, it was pitching. Despite the return of strong arms Josh Sborz (1.98 ERA in a team-high 30 appearances in 2013) and Brandon Waddell (6-3 with a 3.96 ERA in 16 starts in 2013), the departures of dominant closer Kyle Crockett and starter Scott Silverstein left holes to fill.
But once the season began, the Cavaliers proved -- predominantly from the mound -- why they deserved top billing. After losing their first game, the Hoos went on to win 10 of their next 11. The weekend starting rotation of three sophomores limited opponents to three runs or fewer in 13 straight games and in 47 of 60 season games. The UVa pitching staff, whose 2.24 ERA at the end of the regular season led the ACC and ranked fifth nationally, allowed the fewest hits per nine innings (6.35) in Division I baseball.
While the lineup hit only .279 during the regular season, the Cavaliers played almost flawless defense, finishing the regular season with a .982 fielding percentage, fourth-best in the nation. Those combined efforts led Virginia to solid victories in its fifth super regional appearance of the past six years, advancing to their third College World Series in that same span. Since 2009, they've won more baseball games than any team in the nation.
"I'm so proud of our team, the consistency that this ball club has played with all year," head coach Brian O'Connor said following the Charlottesville Regional. "The fact that we were a national seed and the expectations that were on us, and how we performed ... you look at our ability to advance out of regionals the last six years in this program, it's impressive and speaks to the consistency that our players have played with."
A consistency that Omaha opponents may have trouble stopping, as Virginia looks to win its first national championship in program history.
Once the 2013 Cavaliers entered the top 25 rankings during the first weeks of the season, they continued to climb, winning 50 games and looking to return to Omaha for the first time since 2011. But their season ended at home with two straight losses to Mississippi State in the super regionals. This year, with key veteran players joined by a nine-member freshman class that ranked 14th nationally, the Cavaliers were excited to start -- even if the pressure of a top ranking accompanied it.
"I think we embraced the expectations placed on us and we enjoyed it because in some ways, we earned it," junior catcher Nate Irving said. "It has to do with a lot of things -- guys coming back, guys we lost in the draft -- but the biggest thing for us is we're a group of 25 guys who never stray from our teammates. We're just as good friends off the field as we are here."
That we-before-me mentality, reinforced daily by the veteran coaching staff, runs throughout the Cavaliers' roster. Despite the wealth of individual talent (eight Cavaliers were drafted by major league teams this past week, three in the first round, a first in program history), team members say that their success, whether they're top-ranked or unranked, derives in large part from their mentality.
"We have so much trust in one another that I know that if I don't get the job done, the guy behind me will pick me up and get it done," Waddell said. "That's been our mentality all season, and it's one of the ways that we have a lot of confidence in ourselves."
When fall ball began, the Cavaliers weren't sure who'd replace Crockett in the closer's role. The coaching staff decided before the start of the season that utility player Nick Howard, who was named first-team All-ACC after starting 50 regular-season games in 2013 and finishing with a 6-4 record and 3.38 ERA in 12 starts on the mound, would be the team's closer. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound junior, who was drafted 19th overall in the MLB draft by the Cincinnati Reds this past week, transitioned well into his new role, another example of the collective brainpower of O'Connor and his staff, now in their 11th season together in Charlottesville.
Howard's fastball, which had previously topped in the mid-90s, moved up to 98 mph alongside an effective curveball and slider. He set ACC and Virginia records with 19 saves while striking out 50 batters in 29.1 innings in the regular season and allowed only seven earned runs. He also played well in the DH spot, including a 4-for-4 day against Maryland starter Jake Stinnett in the ACC tournament. In UVa's decisive 11-2 win over Maryland that sealed its ticket to the College World Series, Howard allowed only one hit in the final 1.1 innings of relief, finishing off Sborz's seven shutout innings.
"We're playing great baseball in all aspects of the game: hitting, defense, pitching," Howard said. "We're really starting to put stuff together now."
Sophomore lefty Nathan Kirby's 2014 season also looked very different from the previous year. He finished 2013 with a 6.06 ERA over 32.2 innings out of the bullpen, striking out 37 but also allowing 43 hits. After playing summer ball in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, he returned to campus a more confident pitcher, and the results showed it.
The Midlothian, Virginia, native was named the 2014 ACC Co-Pitcher of the Year, securing a 9-1 record prior to the super regionals with an ACC-low 1.36 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 99.1 innings. O'Connor called Kirby the most improved pitcher he's had in his 11 years at UVa. "As a freshman, it's very easy to contract into that bubble of trying to figure college baseball out," Irving said.
"I went through that. It all seems like a bit too much at times. [Kirby] has all the immense ability anyone can ever want, and he just happens to be a lefty. It was just a matter of time until he learned to trust that his ability could take him further than he ever thought it could. Now he knows he can go out and throw strikes and his ability will take care of the rest."
That knowledge is accompanied by the relief that should he stumble, his teammates can take over, whether it's the strong arms of Sborz, seniors Artie Lewicki (6-1 with 1.62 ERA through 55.2 innings) and Whit Mayberry (6-1 with 1.59 ERA in 51 innings), or the solid fielding behind the mound.
Offensive production has also picked up in the postseason. In three regional wins over Arkansas and Bucknell, UVa had 29 hits and 22 runs scored. The UVa pitching staff allowed only three total runs, the fewest of any team in the tournament.
In the supers, after suffering a one-run loss to Maryland in the first game, the Cavaliers controlled the next two matchups on both sides of the ball, totaling 39 hits in three games. Junior Kenny Towns went 3-for-4 with four RBIs in Virginia's 11-2 win over Maryland on Monday, tying a Virginia postseason record. First-round draft pick Mike Papi is batting .311, and sophomore John La Prise is hitting .368, just a couple of the contributors from an offense batting .373 in the postseason.
"This time of year it's about getting hot; it's not necessarily the powerhouse team or who's been there before," O'Connor, who was voted ACC Coach of the Year for the fifth season and now has more than 500 coaching wins, said. "That's why I feel so good about our team -- we've played loose and confident and some of our best baseball.
.. and we hope it continues."