DURHAM, N.C. — Who’s on first?
That old Abbott and Costello comedy routine is legendary for producing yucks. But it was no laughing matter for Virginia’s baseball team in the ACC Tournament on Thursday.
As soon as the Cavaliers finished batting practice at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, UVa coach Brian O’Connor started looking for Kenny Towns.
With a nasty stomach virus sweeping through the team since the Wahoos’ visit to Chapel Hill last weekend, senior first baseman Jared King was too sick to play against Georgia Tech. King had been wobbly for the past five days, but somehow gutted out Wednesday’s lopsided loss to Virginia Tech, getting two of UVa’s seven hits.
King had started 53 games at first this season and brought not only experience but leadership to the clubhouse. Dizzy, dehydrated and weakened by the bug, King just couldn’t answer the bell.
Working the corners
O’Connor pegged Towns, a feisty sophomore third baseman to move from his hot corner to the other corner, making it only the second time all season Towns would play at first.
"He does not practice at first base," the UVa skipper replied when asked how much work Towns has gotten at that spot.
No practice, no problem.
Towns delivered a veteran-like performance, going 2-for-4, scoring two runs, and ripped a solo home run blast over the towering left-field wall. In fact, Towns’ shot followed Nick Howard’s for back-to-back homers that opened a 4-1 lead in the fourth inning that culminated in an 8-2 Wahoo win.
Bouncing back from Wednesday’s defeat, all the Cavaliers have to do now is beat Florida State on Saturday morning after rooting for the Seminoles to beat the Hokies in Thursday’s nightcap. If UVa ends up in a three-way tie with 2-1 records, it owns the tiebreaker and will advance to Sunday’s championship game. If the Hokies end up 3-0 or if UVa loses to FSU, the Cavaliers cannot advance in this event.
One thing is certain. O’Connor knows his team’s ability to bounce back from losses during the regular season is still intact. He also knows that the Cavaliers have some of the hottest bats in the country.
Even if his team can’t overcome this virus, the Cavaliers showed they can adjust. Not only did Towns move to first, but shortstop Nick Howard filled in at third for Towns and freshman John LaPrise was inserted at shortstop.
The Virginia skipper was impressed that his team could shrug off Wednesday’s beating and come back to beat Georgia Tech without the normal chess pieces on the table.
"We had to make some moves but that’s what good teams do," O’Connor said. "I don’t like moving guys around much but the situation called for it."
Towns was flawless at first and was part of a couple of double plays, one unassisted. Parlayed with his offensive punch, King’s absence wasn’t nearly as noticeable.
Towns had taken enough reps at first in the fall and early spring that the position didn’t feel that foreign. As soon as batting practice finished Thursday, he took infield at first and managed to handle some ground balls.
"It’s a little different than third base," Towns said. "You have to know what you’re doing in certain situations."
Even though he hadn’t played the position since the N.C. State series (a UVa sweep) in late March, Towns needed minimal instruction. He didn’t remember how he did at first against the Wolfpack, which he said must have meant that he did OK.
"If I had stunk it up, I would have remembered," Towns chuckled.
No one had to tell Towns what to do in the batter’s box. Like most of his teammates, he has a hot bat, having gone 3-for-8 during the first two days of this ACC event, including a pair of RBI, two runs scored, a triple and a home run. He came into the postseason hitting .414 in his previous 10 games.
Meanwhile, O’Connor knew his team would bounce back Thursday like it had all year. UVa, now 46-10, really hasn’t experienced a losing streak of any note because neither he nor his team have reached for the panic button after a loss.
That’s somewhat uncommon for such a young team that boasts only two seniors on a daily basis.
"When teams go through losing streaks they tend to panic and try to do too much," O’Connor explained.
When UVa has lost, even against the rival Hokies the day before, Thursday was business as usual.
Virginia was back to normal, particularly at the plate, where the Cavaliers pounded out nine hits, including three home runs, all to the short porch in left (375 feet). The longest of the trio was Brandon Downes’, which landed atop the metal roof of the Tobacco Road restaurant that overlooks the stadium.
"Got all of it," said Downes, who sheepishly admitted he was the source of the bug that had struck the team. "I was dehydrated at Carolina but I guess it was a virus. We know the symptoms now, so we’re coming back better from it."
Offense hasn’t been much of a problem. Even in the blowout loss to the Hokies, UVa had seven hits, but couldn’t piece things together.
"We’ve been hitting the ball so well over the past two weeks since coming out of the exam break," O’Connor pointed out. "It’s pretty incredible how we hit against Duke, VCU and at North Carolina. Our whole lineup was locked in and hopefully it’s something that will continue."
While O’Connor will be the first to say that pitching and defense is the most important ingredients to postseason success, he will take the hitting as long as he can.
Since the May 10 exam break, the Wahoos have hit .354 as a team over nine games, recording at least eight hits in all but one game (vs. VT), and scoring at least five runs in each (except VT). Thirty-six hits have gone for extra bases (23 doubles, six triples and seven homers).
"Hitting is contagious and when a spark gets lit we’ve done a pretty good job of capitalizing on those opportunities and getting things done," Towns said.
No matter who’s on first.