Brian O’Connor began the 2013 Virginia baseball season by penciling in a true freshman as his Friday starting pitcher, moving a primary outfielder to second base, taking the most talented arm on the staff and making him the closer and piecing together a lineup highlighted by six sophomores and a first-year.
By the start of ACC play, O’Connor had his rookie right fielder permanently move to third in the batting order. Two weeks from the league tournament, O’Connor’s shortstop, leadoff man and hits leader went out with a broken finger. The UVa coach replaced Branden Cogswell defensively by shifting over his everyday third baseman and offensively by plugging in the normal five-hole hitter at the top of the order.
Monday, O’Connor was named ACC Coach of the Year for the third time in four seasons and for the fourth time in his 10 years in Charlottesville.
His Cavaliers are 45-9, ranked fifth nationally and can be considered a strong favorite to capture this week’s ACC Tournament in Durham, N.C.
Apparently, O’Connor pushed a few right buttons.
“That’s part of managing a team,” O’Connor said Monday after practice at Davenport Field. “Making those crucial decisions that you hope are going to make your team better and gives yourself a chance to consistently win.
“I can tell you when those decisions are made, most often they’re made as a group with our coaching staff. We sit around a table and throw some things out. A lot of people have different perspectives. It’s a total group effort. We’re just fortunate that a lot of those things have worked out.”
A majority of those key moves could be found in the ACC’s Monday release concerning post-season honors.
That primary outfielder who moved to second? Reed Gragnani made the league’s first team by batting .310, collecting 48 RBI from the seventh spot, striking out just nine times in 184 at-bats and having a fielding percentage of .946.
That new closer? Kyle Crockett made the league’s first team by going 4-1 with a 1.97 ERA. He’s earned 10 saves with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 55 to five.
That young lineup? Sophomore outfielder Mike Papi (ACC regular season batting champ) and sophomore third baseman/Sunday pitcher Nick Howard (.325 batting average; 3.43 ERA with five wins) made the league’s first team. Cogswell, the shortstop with a .346 batting average, and freshman right fielder Joe McCarthy (.333, three home runs, 47 RBI) made the league’s second team.
That rookie who moved to third in the order? McCarthy was also named ACC Freshman of the Year.
That five-hole hitter who moved to leadoff? Papi’s gained consecutive ACC Player of the Week accolades since the switch.
“He has a vision,” Gragnani said of O’Connor’s successful strategy. “He knows the right situations to put guys in and he knows that the guys can handle them. He has confidence in them, he believes in them and he fills them with so much confidence and so much poise that I feel like everybody’s just always comfortable around him.
“Nobody’s afraid to fail in this game of failure with him at your back. He’s just a genius.”
A humble O’Connor refuses to take all the credit.
These Wahoos went from relatively under the radar in February (appeared in the top 25 of just one preseason poll) to a likely national seed in May because of the aid of three assistants.
“Really, that award should go to [associate head coach/hitting coach] Kevin McMullan, [pitching coach] Karl Kuhn and [volunteer assistant] Matt Kirby,” O’Connor said. “Those guys are tremendous coaches. We’re an entire staff and it’s a nice reward for our entire coaching staff.”
The group found the right combination for a program-tying record number of wins. Next week, Virginia, barring some unusual twist, will host an NCAA Regional for the seventh time in the O’Connor era.
Tip your cap in the skipper’s direction for knowing those right buttons to push.
“When you’re around the players every day,” O’Connor said, “and you see what kind of people they are and how they can handle situations, that really helps you making those difficult decisions.”
Joey Bats, Joey Gloves
McCarthy is the first Cavalier to receive the ACC’s highest freshman honor since Danny Hultzen earned the title in 2009.
The Scranton, Pa., native’s plate presence has been well documented (he’s reached base in 49 of his 52 games this season), but his defense might be the underlying story to his early success.
McCarthy has yet to commit an error in 84 chances.
“Defense is something I really take pride in,” McCarthy said. “Going out and not making an error all year, it’s just hard work paying off.”
Rounding the bases
O’Connor said Cogswell is doubtful to play in the ACC Tournament, which starts at 3 p.m., Wednesday, against Virginia Tech. ... O’Connor also said he hasn’t decided on his scheduled pitching rotation for Durham, but the three pool play starters will be Brandon Waddell, Scott Silverstein and Whit Mayberry. Mayberry made his first two starts of the season last week, including a five-inning performance of one run on five hits in the 8-7 win over No. 2 North Carolina on Saturday. Howard will be a relief option. ... Kenny Towns, held out Saturday because of a hip injury, didn’t practice Monday. The sophomore third baseman’s tournament availability will be determined over the course of today and Wednesday, O’Connor said.