In 2012, Virginia couldn’t crack the Baseball America preseason poll. The Cavaliers finished No. 25. In 2013, UVa, again, was a no-show in Baseball America’s initial rankings. It finished No. 11.
Monday morning, the respected national publication released its first poll of 2014.
This time, it made sure the Wahoos wouldn’t exceed its expectations.
Virginia is No. 1.
“This is a program that always seems to finish the year higher than where we had them ranked in the preseason,” said Aaron Fitt, Baseball America’s college national writer. “So it’s not going to be able to do that this year.”
The top billing in the preseason is a program first. In 2010, the Cavs were No. 2 prior to Opening Day. That bunch won 51 games, but fell a game short of qualifying for the College World Series.
This season’s ’Hoos got that feeling last spring when they were swept in the Super Regional by Mississippi State. But seven starters are back from that defeat plus the return of injured shortstop Branden Cogswell, making them a squad covered in skill and experience.
“It’s really got a chance to be a very special offensive team and defensive team,” Fitt said. “I love the athleticism, the depth of that lineup, the experience, the physicality.
“What’s not to like? I think they’re a complete ballclub.”
Perfect Game, another national publication, apparently feels the same. It also released its preseason rankings Monday with Virginia on top.
“To be the preseason No. 1-ranked team in the country is quite an honor,” said UVa coach Brian O’Connor. “Obviously, there’s people out there in this country that feel like we do, that we have a chance to have a special ballclub this year. You become the No. 1-ranked team in the country when you have experience and you have talent and you have a good program.
“We’re honored, we’re excited and we’re looking forward to getting this season underway.”
That begins Feb. 14 against Kentucky in Wilmington, N.C., as part of the Hughes Bros. Challenge.
A season ago, Virginia also opened in North Carolina. That group of unheralded Cavs won both games at East Carolina by a combined score of 27-13, foreshadowing a 50-win campaign, a surprising run to many.
“I think last year was a big shock to everybody except ourselves,” said junior left fielder Derek Fisher, one of five UVa preseason All-Americans. “We knew we were good. Along with my freshman year, we knew we were good. We didn’t need for people to tell us we were good. I think it was just our job to kind of go out and prove it to ourselves, not really caring about what people thought about us, just as long as we could show ourselves that we’re as good as we knew we were.
“Obviously, we showed that last year.”
This year, however, there’ll be no sneaking up on any opponents. A red target has been added to the back of the blue and orange uniforms.
“I think we’re more of the hunted this year than the hunter,” said reigning All-American junior outfielder/infielder Mike Papi. “So we kind of got to look out for that and make sure we’re always on our toes and not take anyone lightly.”
Papi headlines the eight returnees to the lineup that collectively batted .313 with 38 home runs and 352 RBI in 2013.
By all accounts, Virginia’s offense appears to be as dangerous as any in the country.
Pitching is the lone question mark, Fitt said. The ‘Hoos return Friday starter Brandon Waddell and likely welcome sophomore flame-throwing lefty Nathan Kirby into the weekend rotation, but other spots on the staff remain open.
“How are they going to use [Josh] Sborz?,” Fitt said. “Is he going to close or is he going to be a weekend guy? Where does Connor Jones fit in? I think that guy has a chance to be a dominant starter. You’ve got Nick Howard there. I think he’ll probably be a weekend guy, but he could close, too. He’s got closer stuff.
“I think Waddell and Kirby are probably the only ones that are safe, really locked into their roles, assuming Kirby’s healthy by the time the season starts. It might take a little bit of time.”
Kirby had surgery on his non-throwing shoulder in October, but O’Connor said he expects the former Virginia high school player of the year to be back by the Wilmington trip.
“He actually threw yesterday in a scrimmage indoors and threw just over 60 pitches,” O’Connor said. “His velocity looked very good. His off-speed pitches looked very good, so I anticipate that he’ll be ready for the start of the season. I’m not quite sure yet what his strength level is, what his endurance will be because he did lose quite a bit of weight from the surgery he had.
“But he looks good and he looks like he’ll be ready to contribute early on.”
Early on is when Virginia plays as the No. 1 team in the country.
“We all know how these rankings go,” O’Connor said. “I think rankings matter a lot in college football because it’s all tied to the BCS and where you’re moving to in the polls. In baseball, nobody goes wire to wire No. 1 in the country, to the end.
“It’s great, it’s an honor. I believe that they’ll handle it the right way.”