Welcome to the final week of college baseball’s regular season. For Virginia, this means the tinkering can begin.
The No. 1 Cavaliers (41-9) host VCU (33-15) at 6 p.m., tonight, to kick off an all-important five-day stretch that will end Saturday at Wake Forest.
At stake is an ACC Coastal Division title, seeding for next week’s ACC Tournament and national seeding for the NCAA Tournament in two weeks.
Just what will the Wahoos look like while striving for these goals?
For starters, there could be some mixing and matching with their ... starters.
Freshman right-hander Alec Bettinger (5-0, 1.17 ERA) will throw the first pitch tonight, leaving Virginia coach Brian O’Connor the option of bringing senior righty Artie Lewicki into the weekend rotation.
Lewicki has strictly been a midweek ace this season, but in his last four appearances — all against potential NCAA Tournament teams in William & Mary, VCU, Old Dominion and Liberty — he’s 2-1 with a 1.61 ERA.
“Talent-wise and the way he’s pitching, he could pitch at the front end of somebody’s rotation,” O’Connor said Wednesday after Lewicki shut the Flames down for one hit in seven shutout innings. “Certainly, that’s a luxury for us. I’m sure there will be some juggling of what we do with our pitching as we progress into the NCAA Tournament and Artie’s going to be a key guy for us. He’s earned that. He’s pitching as good as anybody we have.”
That’s a bold statement considering UVa’s arms have combined on a team ERA of 2.18, good for fifth-best in the country.
Should Lewicki join the weekend staff, something O’Connor has yet to announce, which of the regulars heads to the bullpen?
Nathan Kirby, at 8-1 and boasting a near-ACC-best 1.62 ERA, is finalizing his case to be an All-American. Since the end of March, Brandon Waddell is 4-1 with a 1.98 ERA.
That leaves Josh Sborz, a sophomore righty who has only gotten through the sixth inning once in his last six starts.
Should the Lewicki for Sborz move be made, that gives the Wahoos another solid reliving option. Pitching mostly out of the ‘pen last season, Sborz went 3-0 with a 1.98 ERA.
O’Connor said he’ll discuss the situation with pitching coach Karl Kuhn after tonight’s game. The Virginia-Wake Forest series begins Thursday.
“I would expect some kind of change this weekend just because of the one day’s less rest,” O’Connor said Monday, “but we haven’t made a decision more than what we’re doing [tonight].”
A few changes have already been made to the lineup.
Since the Liberty game, normal three-hole man Mike Papi has been at the leadoff spot, replacing Branden Cogswell.
At his new six-hole position, Cogswell is batting .384 with three RBI.
“I think he’s really starting to swing the bat really well,” O’Connor said Saturday after Cogswell went 3-for-4 with two RBI and brought in the winning run in the Cavs’ 4-3 win over Georgia Tech. “I saw it against Liberty. He was above the ball and having good at-bats. He’s had a nice weekend for us.
“Switching him to that six-hole, I don’t know if it has anything to do with it, but sometimes when you juggle things around from a lineup standpoint, it gives guys something fresh, something new. And he’s done a good job since we made that switch.”
O’Connor’s latest nine-hole occupant is his preseason All-American center fielder.
Brandon Downes, who has had bouts with a nagging wrist injury in 2014, was held out of the Georgia Tech opener only to return for games two and three and go 2-for-7 with a pair of RBI.
The junior is batting .218 this season, a year after .316, hitting in the cleanup spot.
“The balls just weren’t falling and I wasn’t having that great of ABs,” Downes said. “It ended up going that way [to the nine-hole]. There’s two options — sit down and feel sorry for myself or just accept it.”
He said he’s noticed a difference in pitching approach with his new place in the order.
“They definitely attack me a lot more than I ever have been before,” Downes said. “I’m starting to see way more pitches in the zone.”
Will O’Connor keep Downes down there? Will he keep Cogswell in the middle? Will he move Lewicki to the weekend rotation?
This is the joy of crunch time in this Virginia season.
“The reality is we’re not scoring a lot of runs,” O’Connor said. “Everybody knows that. And that’s fine, that’s who we are. We’ve figured out how to win.
“But I still have a responsibility to try to tinker with things, to say, ‘What does give us the best combination?’ And we’ll continue to look at that the rest of the way out.”
In order to take the Coastal for the first time since 2011, Virginia (21-6 ACC) must win one more game than Miami (22-5) this weekend. The Hurricanes host North Carolina (30-21, 14-13) in a three-game series.