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As it opens practice, UVa baseball team picked to win ACC

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Posted: Friday, January 24, 2014 7:43 pm

Friday morning, the Virginia baseball team was projected to be holding a trophy under the sunny skies of Greensboro, N.C., on May 25. Friday afternoon, the Cavaliers were taking grounders under the roof of the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility.

‘Tis the season.

UVa, which returns seven-ninths of its everyday lineup plus two-thirds of its weekend rotation from last year’s 50-win squad, was selected by the league’s coaches as the favorite to win the ACC.

Even in the wintry conditions that forced their first 2014 practice to be held away from Davenport Field, the Wahoos could gladly begin their quest for a third trip to the College World Series in the past six years.

“Certainly we have a lot of confidence in our guys,” said Virginia coach Brian O’Connor. “We have a group of young men that has played a lot for us here. With that, and with talent, comes expectations.

“To be predicted to win the ACC, one of the best conferences in the country, is quite an honor. Now we have to go out and work for that every day.”

The last time Virginia was pegged to capture the league title was in 2010 as the entire starting lineup returned from the ’09 bunch that went to Omaha.

The 2013 Cavaliers finished two wins short of the College World Series, falling in back-to-back games to Mississippi State in the Charlottesville Super Regional.

The Bulldogs went on to finish as the national runner-up. The Wahoos would go on to get an early start in their summer leagues.

“You always got to live in the moment,” said junior Mike Papi. “You can’t really dwell on the past too much. But when you lose the last game of the season, it kind of stings a little bit. But we moved on and we’ve been working hard for a couple months now.

“We’re ready.”

Papi is the most decorated of the returnees. Backed by his team-leading .381 batting average and .517 on-base percentage, the left fielder earned first-team All-American honors last season.

But there’s no sure thing he’ll remain in the same position a year later.

Because of depth and versatility throughout the roster, O’Connor and his staff have plenty of options to tinker with.

Sure, Papi will be starting Feb. 14 when the Cavs open up against Kentucky in Wilmington, N.C., but in left field? Right field? At first base?

“I have no idea,” Papi said. “Any way I can help the team.”

First base is one of the few spots left vacant as three-year starter Jared King departed after last spring. The candidates include Papi, Nick Howard, Kenny Towns and Joe McCarthy.

Collectively, that group batted .323 with 21 home runs and 190 RBI in 2013. In all likelihood, that bunch will produce a first baseman, third baseman, corner outfielder and designated hitter in 2014.

“This year’s unique,” O’Connor said. “The depth is there so much that it’s not right for me to make those decisions right now because I think those players need to be out there competing on an everyday basis for who’s going to have playing time.

“This is a really unique situation that we’re dealing with this year, but something I think is a real positive.”

Pitching-wise, O’Connor has back Brandon Waddell, his Friday starter, and Howard, his Sunday starter. But, again, there’s no guarantee those rotation spots will remain the same.

Nathan Kirby, used mostly in a bullpen role last season, has emerged as a likely candidate to become a weekend staple. The sophomore went 3-0 with a 1.67 ERA this past summer in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.

The staff also includes highly-touted freshman Connor Jones, reliable sophomore Josh Sborz and savvy seniors Whit Mayberry and Artie Lewicki, among talented others.

Pad all of it with a loaded lineup featuring a nation’s best five Perfect Game preseason All-Americans (Howard, Papi, Derek Fisher, Brandon Downes, Branden Cogswell) and, yes, Friday’s billing as the most hunted team in the ACC is well-supported.

“Whether we’re picked first or picked last, none of that really matters right now,” said junior catcher Nate Irving. “What matters is us getting better every day and getting ready for Feb. 14.”

ACC preseason coaches poll

Overall champion

1. Virginia (10)

2. Florida State (4)

Coastal Division

1. Virginia (12)

2. North Carolina (2)

3. Miami

4. Georgia Tech

5. Duke

6. Virginia Tech

7. Pitt

Atlantic Division

1. Florida State (9)

2. N.C. State (5)

3. Clemson

4. Maryland

5. Notre Dame

6. Wake Forest

7. Boston College

- First-place votes in parentheses

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