Five days before Mike Papi became the hero of Virginia’s first ACC road win, he was selected to prevent UVa’s first loss.
The 14-0 Cavaliers trailed Maryland, 4-1, with two out and two on in the eighth inning when coach Brian O’Connor opted for his bench with Jared King’s spot due up in the order.
He wanted a pinch-hitter and he went with Papi because there was hope the sophomore could “run into a ball, maybe drive the ball out of the ballpark.”
But Papi simply grounded out to first base, ending the threat in a game the Wahoos would eventually lose, 4-2.
Flash ahead to this past Friday and O’Connor’s bunch is down to Clemson, 5-4, with two out in the ninth and Reed Gragnani on second. It’s catcher Nate Irving’s turn in the lineup, but the Virginia skipper is thinking Papi again.
This time, the slight 6-foot-3, 195-pounder delivers with a game-tying single up the middle. Two innings later, he takes a one-out Mike Kent pitch deep into the South Carolina night to give UVa a lead it wouldn’t give up in a 6-5 win.
How do you make up for not coming though once in a clutch situation? You come through twice five days later.
That’s how Papi jumpstarted the No. 11 Cavs’ (17-2, 4-2 ACC) big series win over the Tigers (11-7, 3-3).
“I’ve talked to the players a lot about being ready for your opportunity,” O’Connor said Monday at Davenport Field. “We’ve got good talent on this team. I think we have some good depth and some good options.
“And when you have that, and when your everyday players are performing well, it’s tough for guys to get opportunities. Mike certainly took that advice to heart.”
It’s true. Despite Papi’s .357 batting average, two home runs and 10 RBI, he’s still not a regular in Virginia’s lineup.
Papi has appeared in 14 games with just six starts (four as the designated hitter, one in right field, another in left). There’s just too much talent.
The DH spot has been mostly handled by Kenny Towns (team-best 23 RBI), freshman Joe McCarthy has been a spark in right field (batting .338), preseason All-American Derek Fisher is a natural in left (slugging .531 with two home runs and 20 RBI) and King, a fifth-year senior, is one of the program’s most consistent players (.279 batting average in 158 career games).
Papi’s chances to shine are limited.
“I’m always ready for my opportunities,” Papi said. “I know I’m not in the starting lineup every day, but whenever Coach calls my number, I’m going to be ready. I try to help produce for the team.”
Papi started 28 games, 27 in right field, last season before a back injury ended it in late April.
After the campaign ended, Papi stayed in Charlottesville to rehab for two weeks before playing what he phrased as “about 30 games of summer ball” in New England.
He said he didn’t feel completely back to 100 percent until earlier this season and the back still causes nagging pain every now and then.
“It was a gradual back issue,” Papi said. “It was with my discs. We never really knew, technically, what was wrong with it. It was just a time injury. We had to give it time to heal.”
Like O’Connor has given him time to figure out his niche.
Right now, it’s a late-game pinch-hitting role. But in the future?
“Mike’s got talent a lot like those guys that are playing every day,” O’Connor said. “I’ve got to find a way to get him in there some more because I think he’s a very talented player that has waited for his opportunity and certainly has made the most of it.”
Maybe Papi’s next chance will come at 5 p.m., tonight, when the Wahoos host Yale (1-7) for the first of a mid-week two-game series.
“Whenever I get my opportunities,” Papi said, “I’m going to take advantage of them.”