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If polls are the power that ultimately decide matters of baseball hierarchy, then the ACC is North Carolina's league, with the Tar Heels currently ranked No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches' poll. And if you want to name the conference's No. 2, then you have Florida State (ranked fifth in the national poll).
OK, sure, you want a No. 3, so the poll gives you No. 11 Georgia Tech. All quality clubs, all most deserving of their current rankings.
But I imagine Brian O'Connor wakes up in Charlottesville, Va., sees his 19-2 Cavaliers ranked No. 13 in the country, and fourth in their own league, and chuckles over his morning coffee. Oh, it's fine. Nobody needs the attention. This isn't football, where the rankings mean everything and million-dollar gridiron coaches morph into million-dollar campaign men at the most opportune times, shills for the university's good name and the program's better BCS profile.
O'Connor has been around long enough, won enough games, to know stealth is a fine way for a baseball team to pursue its business, because once you get into the NCAA tournament, the polls suddenly surrender to whomever you hand the ball to in Game 1. So O'Connor concerns himself only with the state of his club entering the third weekend of ACC play against No. 18 NC State.
|In 10 seasons, Brian O'Connor has built Virginia into a national power.|
"We've gotten consistent pitching, and we have a really tough lineup with some guys who can run and some guys who can hit the ball out of the yard," O'Connor says.
Look closer at that pitching and that lineup, and you'll see the driving force behind the Cavs: youth.
What O'Connor and his staff have assembled in Charlottesville is a collection of talent good enough to get to Omaha this season and then return almost every core piece. Virginia isn't necessarily hoarding blue-chip recruits, but there is a UVa identity that O'Connor and his staff maintain.
Their pitchers are aggressive and throw strikes with multiple pitches. Their hitters place an emphasis on discipline and being a difficult out more than any singular result. Their fielders take pride in securing the ball on defense and not extending innings unnecessarily. No, they're not principles foreign to other teams, but there is a commitment to a culture that O'Connor has built in his 10 seasons at Virginia, a harvest that has yielded two College World Series appearances in the past four seasons.
"It starts with the recruiting process," O'Connor says. "You can't recruit a player and tell them this is how it's going to be, and then have it not be that way. So guys know what it's going to be like, the expectations, how we coach, what's important for us to have a successful program. And then we just never waver on the fundamentals that are important to us."
It doesn't mean the freshmen will never falter, but it's one reason why Virginia loses older players to the draft and graduation only to shuffle in the next batch of underclassmen and watch them produce. This season may even be an extreme example of that.
The Cavaliers are hitting .312 as a team and have six players at .300 or better individually.
There's sophomore shortstop Branden Cogswell, who's hitting .405 with five doubles, three triples and a .545 on-base percentage. "He got pretty good experience last year, and I thought he lined up well with what we like in the leadoff spot," O'Connor says. "We want someone with good plate discipline who can steal a base and put pressure on you but also has the ability to hit a double when you turn the lineup over from the No. 8-9 spot."
There's sophomore center fielder Brandon Downes, who has six doubles, four triples and three home runs to go along with his .309 average. "With his 6-foot-3 size, he has good leverage with his swing and a chance to drive the ball out of the yard," O'Connor says. "He does a good job making adjustments and has gotten better in his plate discipline -- that's a sign of the growth of a player."
The other four Cavaliers in that .300 or better group: sophomore third baseman Nick Howard (.339), freshman right fielder Joe McCarthy (.306), senior first baseman Jared King (.301) and sophomore left fielder Derek Fisher (.300). Yes, only one of those six guys is eligible for the 2013 draft, and therefore most (if not all) of them will be back on campus next fall.
Virginia is in similar shape on the mound. It has three starting right-handed pitchers with an ERA better than 3.00: sophomore Nick Howard (1.27) and freshmen Trey Oest (1.23) and Brandon Waddell (2.48). Oest starts in the midweek, with Waddell on Friday, Howard on Sunday and redshirt senior left-hander Scott Silverstein (3.25) on Saturday, giving O'Connor some balance and at least one defense in case he's ever accused of mocking the mere idea of upperclassman experience.
The Cavaliers' bullpen leans older with redshirt junior Whit Mayberry and junior Kyle Crockett having thrown the most innings out of the bunch, and yet freshman Josh Sborz is being groomed as the closer. It's a mix that gives O'Connor a multitude of options this season and into the future.
There's also additional value in Howard and (eventually) Waddell. Throughout O'Connor's tenure, Virginia has always had quality two-way players. There was Sean Doolittle, who hit .301 with seven homers his junior season in 2007, and now he's a left-handed monster in the Oakland Athletics' bullpen. There was Danny Hultzen, who pitched on Fridays and played first base before becoming the second overall pick in the 2011 draft by Seattle as a pitcher.
Howard is contributing in major ways as both a hitter and pitcher this season, and Waddell also has the ability to hit, although Virginia hasn't allowed him to do that yet. To some extent, O'Connor acknowledges, this trend of two-way players at Virginia is by design, because O'Connor views athletes who can do both as unique assets who can be used to manipulate a roster.
"No question we like them," O'Connor says. "We've made an effort to recruit guys like that. In college baseball, you have roster limitations, and we can't call anyone up from Triple-A. So that's a way to add some [depth]."
No opposing coach would call Virginia a "sleeper" in 2013 -- the Cavaliers have simply been too good for too many seasons now to be left out of national discussions. But perhaps because the ACC has depth at the top of the league this season, there is a certain quietness regarding the Cavs on a national level, a most dangerous club lurking outside college baseball's gated community of top-ranked teams.
But Virginia has as good a chance as most teams to reach Omaha in June and, if roster construction is any indication, possibly the best chance of all to do it again in 2014.
It's sort of amazing what South Carolina is doing on the mound. The Gamecocks had to replace starting pitcher Michael Roth, the most decorated pitcher in program history, and Matt Price, a super-closer who threw 77 2/3 innings last season (and made five starts). Both were huge pieces of the Gamecocks' national title runs in 2010 and '11.
But here are the 2013 Gamecocks, pitching their way to an 18-3 record and No. 6 national ranking. Coming into the season, coach Chad Holbrook was fired up about the arms he had, particularly the depth of his staff, which has manifested itself nicely so far this spring. Lefty Jordan Montgomery slid into Roth's spot on Fridays and posted a 0.95 ERA in three starts before missing the last two weeks with a bone stress reaction in his elbow. In his place has been Evan Beal, who has a 0.56 ERA and 21 strikeouts to only three walks.
Nolan Belcher has held the Saturday slot and has 36 strikeouts and only one walk in 36 innings to go with his 1.25 ERA. Holbrook loves freshman lefty Jack Wynkoop, who's currently starting in the midweek, and has a 1.40 ERA, but could eventually move into the weekend rotation -- even this season, if the opportunity arises. Closer Tyler Webb isn't used in the same manner Price was, but he's the concrete foundation of the bullpen, with his perfect ERA, 20 strikeouts and three walks in 13 1/3 innings.
Oh sure, South Carolina is just starting its grind through the SEC, with No. 17 Arkansas in town this weekend and LSU, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and others still to come. But this staff has yet to give any indication it's incapable of filling what were two enormous holes entering the season.
No. 8 Ole Miss is now 20-2 and hosts Texas A&M this weekend in Oxford, and although the Rebels haven't played perfect ball, we're beyond the stage of wondering whether they can hang with the Vanderbilts and LSUs of the conference. I think it's pretty clear Ole Miss can.
When I spoke with coach Mike Bianco earlier in the spring, he loved the experience of his club, with depth in the pitching staff and six of nine starters returning in the field. "There's a sense that we've been there before," Bianco said. His biggest question: Who will emerge as the anchor of our offense?
Well, that guy has emerged, and it's junior catcher Stuart Turner, who's in his first season at Ole Miss after playing two years of junior college ball. Turner is hitting .493 with a .732 slugging percentage -- a product of his nine doubles, two homers and a triple. In the cleanup spot, Turner is getting on base at a .524 clip, driving in runs and putting himself in position to be driven in. That he's doing it from the catcher position is an incredible value and competitive advantage for Ole Miss.
Tim Esmay would probably like his pitching staff to cut down on the walks a little more, but for the most part the Arizona State coach is confident in what he has on the mound. In left-hander Ryan Kellogg and right-hander Trevor Williams, No. 21 ASU has two starting pitchers who can match anybody's top two in the Pac-12.
"[Kellogg] is an educated strike-thrower and has the ability to live off more than just one pitch," Esmay told me this week. "[Williams] pitches at 92-95 mph and has a breaking ball and a slider, and he's also established a pretty good changeup; that's been a big evolution for him. He's one of the better kids I've had around here."
What Esmay is still trying to find somewhere in his team is a consistent offensive identity. The Sun Devils have a few thumpers -- Trever Allen, James McDonald, David Graybill and Michael Benjamin all have slugging percentages .490 or better -- but overall they don't bang their way to victories.
"We've really gone through some growing pains with our offense," Esmay says. "We're starting to score some more runs again, but it's a workmanlike offense."
After losing two of three to Washington State at home last weekend in their first conference series of the season, the Sun Devils head to No. 4 Oregon State this weekend with a chance to answer some questions. ASU can pitch with the Beavers, but can it hit with them?
It's been a rough season so far for Florida, from losing right-hander Karsten Whitson to shoulder surgery to Friday starter Jonathon Crawford struggling and being bumped back in the rotation. But this weekend the Gators have the chance to rebound from last week's series loss to No. 10 Kentucky and feel good about themselves going forward. Florida goes to No. 2 Vanderbilt and then comes home to a Tuesday game with Florida State.
It's still very early in the conference season and there are plenty of opportunities in the SEC to win big games and get things right before the postseason, but the swamp is rising now on Florida. Next weekend brings Ole Miss to Gainesville, Fla., and the weekend after that is a trip to Mississippi State. After that? A weekend series with South Carolina. Yes, this is the gauntlet for the Gators.
Florida's lack of a Top 25 ranking is indicative of its 10-12 record, but I don't think it's an indication of the talent level of Kevin O'Sullivan's club. But the next month of ball will provide the true test of that talent. If the Gators stumble through that stretch -- or worse, get pummeled -- then their final SEC series against Missouri, Tennessee, LSU, Auburn and Georgia become critically important for postseason positioning.
Florida begins this stretch Friday in Nashville against Kevin Ziomek, who has a 0.92 ERA with 51 strikeouts and nine walks in 39 1/3 innings this season.
There's some interesting news out of Fort Worth, Texas, this week: Junior right-hander Andrew Mitchell will return to the starting rotation after operating as the team's closer this season. Mitchell is 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, another potential power arm that could find its way into the draft's first round in June if he can build his arm strength back up and put together a good second half of the season as a starter.
TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle told reporters this week that he's frustrated by his club losing and Mitchell not getting enough opportunities to pitch high-leverage innings. So Mitchell goes to the rotation as the Horned Frogs go to Norman, Okla., this weekend to face No. 16 Oklahoma. TCU is 9-11 and 1-2 in Big 12 play -- losing its first conference series against Kanas last weekend -- and so this move is the right one, as it's early enough to help turn TCU's season around.
But it's at least a little bit concerning that Mitchell's first start will be Sunday against the Sooners. He's pitched a total of 11 innings in nine games this season and can't possibly be conditioned to throw 100-plus pitches in an adrenaline-fueled league series right now.
I'd guess TCU would be happy to get five good innings from him this weekend -- at, say, 75 pitches or less -- and then build from there, but you know how this works: Coaches have a tough time pulling pitchers who are going well, particularly in games that feel especially significant. This weekend isn't everything for TCU and certainly not for Mitchell, who has a bright pro future if healthy. Hopefully Schlossnagle builds him back up into starting condition in an appropriate manner.
Today in Omaha: High of 39 degrees, 20 percent chance of precipitation, 86 days until CWS Game 1.