Joe McCarthy came to Charlottesville with a big bat and an uncommon cool for a schoolboy joining up with one of the nation’s best college baseball outfits.
On a day when Virginia opened NCAA Regional play minus its usual offensive panache, the Wahoos were excited to see that McCarthy brought the cool and the bat to sold-out Davenport Field. He went 3-for-3, accounting for a third of UVa’s hits, and drove in what proved to be the winning run in a 2-1 close call over Army.
With the Black Knights riding the strong-armed performance of senior right-handed hurler Chris Rowley (seven innings, 122 pitches), Army pushed the Cavaliers to the limit before succumbing to rocket-throwing Kyle Crockett in relief of starter Brandon Waddell (seven innings, three hits, one run).
Every hit was hard to come by against the veteran Rowley, an athletic, gritty warrior who doesn’t beat himself. For McCarthy to get three of ‘em, including a key one in a potentially explosive bottom of the fifth for Virginia, it was no surprise for UVa coach Brian O’Connor.
After all, the freshman McCarthy was so impressive in the baseball-rich ACC, that he was named the conference’s Freshman of the Year.
You want aggressive at the plate? You got it with McCarthy. On an offensive unit that led the ACC in batting (.314 collectively) and ranks 11thnationally and third in scoring, the rookie has been, well, very un-rookie like.
He entered the postseason ranked third among ACC freshmen with a .329 average (17thoverall in the league), second among ACC rooks in walks and on base percentage (.455). He owns the third-best on base percentage of any freshman in the country.
C’mon, man. Freshmen aren’t supposed to be able to do that. Yet, McCarthy keeps delivering and being a man of few words, reverts to his Aw Shucks manner when required to talk about his deeds.
“I felt as if I wasn’t trying to do too much at the plate,” the UVa right-fielder said of his first NCAA experience. “I was seeing the ball and using the whole field, which helped me get those three hits.”
We’ll say. How about a single to left in the first, a big run-scoring single to right in the fifth when the Cavaliers threatened to blow the game open with four of their nine hits, and then another single to left in the seventh. In between was a base on balls.
All that coming against the veteran Rowley who was in complete command of his game, grudgingly giving up anything good to hit.
“[Rowley’s] a guy who is going to attack the zone and you’ve got to be ready for him,” McCarthy said afterward. “Today, he showed why he’s a great pitcher.”
All that said, O’Connor was happy with the win, Virginia’s 48thin 58 games this season, but not so satisfied with how his team performed at the plate. Particularly hot since the May 10 exam break, the Cavaliers had hit .345 as a team during that 10-game span and runs had most often come in bunches.
Perhaps only a spectacular running catch of a Reed Gragnani shot to center by Army fielder Jacob Page with bases loaded prevented the Cavaliers from flexing their scoring muscles on this day with the wind blowing out at Davenport.
That made McCarthy’s three-hit heroics, particularly his last one, even more important.
“Joe McCarthy is one of the toughest, competitive players we have had here in 10 years,” said O'Connor. “He is an animal. He shows up every day ready to play and competes. But he has a real maturity about himself in the batter’s box. He doesn’t let negative things affect him, he just gets ready for the next pitch.”
It’s no secret that O’Connor loves to recruit players who have a football background because he believes it adds an important ingredient of toughness and grit to his baseball program. When he discovered McCarthy, cut from the scrap of rugged Scranton, Pa., a one-time coal and steel town, it was love at first sight.
“When we trained in the offseason, you could tell that this guy has played football,” O’Connor said, unable to contain his grin. “You could tell that he’s been knocked down a few times and had to get back up.”
Seems like nothing fazes this kid, which makes it no surprise to his coaches why he has been so darned consistent all year long.
A case in point, the end of the Florida State series at UVa earlier this month - when the Cavaliers became the first team to sweep three from the Seminoles since legendary FSU coach Mike Martin wasn’t gray - McCarthy gave fans a hint of that toughness.
Chasing down a fly ball, the UVa freshman crashed hard into the wall down the right-field line, smashed up his throwing hand, which drew immediate alarm from the coaching and medical staff.
“He wouldn’t come out of the game,” O’Connor remembered.
Game officials gave him time to make a few throws with apparently jammed fingers, all of the tosses resembling wounded ducks. Finally, O’Connor had to make him come out because it wasn’t productive for the team.
McCarthy got right back into the lineup, missing two games, but returned as if the wall had lost, not the player.
Listen to the kid talk, though, and he always says the right thing, kind of like he always does the right thing. Coachable.
“They’re very well-trained,” O’Connor laughed when jokingly accused of scripting what his players should say to media in postgame interviews.
McCarthy was serious though when asked about his magical rookie ride.
“This is a new experience for us, but we have a lot of great coaches and teammates that really help us [freshmen] through it all,” McCarthy said. “Jared King (a senior), for example. I can’t think of a day that goes by where I don’t learn something from him or can’t watch him without growing as a player from observing.”
Told you he wasn’t your typical freshman.
O’Connor is hoping his team will be more relaxed at the plate in tonight’s NCAA game against Elon.
Hey, maybe they should just have them hang out with McCarthy all day.