There’s a couple of good reasons why Virginia has been at the top of ACC batting since 2009: good players and good coaching.
Kevin McMullan, associate head coach and hitting coach for the Cavaliers, has a simple approach to producing one of the most lethal batting orders in the country over his 10-year span with the program. Coach Mac, as he is affectionately called by players, believes in consistency, staying with the same routine.
Certainly that philosophy has paid huge dividends for Virginia this season as the Cavaliers head into their fourth NCAA Super Regional in the past five years. Mississippi State comes to town this weekend for a best-of-three series with the winner advancing to the College World Series.
While the visiting Bulldogs boast a solid pitching staff, bolstered by a strong bullpen, they’ll be facing a UVa hitting lineup that is one of the best in the nation. McMullan’s hitters have a lot to beat their chests about and a quick glance at the NCAA statistics bears that out.
The Cavaliers rank 10th nationally in team batting average (.313); third in scoring (8 runs per game avg.); 14th in hits; eighth in doubles; third in triples; 32nd in home runs; seventh in slugging percentage (.465), and second in sacrifice flies. It’s a smart lineup that keeps a watchful eye on the strike zone, as its No. 6 ranking in base on balls notes.
There’s really not an easy out on the team, particularly when examining the bottom of the order where non-productive hitters usually reside. Not at Virginia, where shortstop Nick Howard, third baseman Kenny Towns and catcher Nate Irving dwell.
They’ve been productive particularly the back end of the season and combined to go 6-of-12 with six RBI and three runs scored in sweeping through three wins in the regional last weekend.
Virginia coach Brian O’Connor, who has led his program to 10 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and two CWS trips, believes that the difference between a good college offense and a great one is getting production from the 7-8-9 hitters like his Cavaliers have all season long.
“That’s what’s incredible,” said UVa sophomore designated hitter Derek Fisher. “Everybody on our team is coming up with runners in scoring position. Most teams, the RBI guys are 3-4-5, but everybody on our team is putting up runs on the board.”
Irving, who bats ninth in the order, believes that the success the bottom of the lineup has enjoyed has something to do with having adopted McMullan’s idea of keeping things simple, accepting roles, and not trying to do too much.
“The chemistry we have on this team between the position players has something to do with it, too,” Irving said. “All of us are very close and spend a lot of time together. You can see that on the field when we string together those eight- and 10-hit innings, or like that six-run inning against Elon in the last game. When we see our friends do it, we piggyback off one another and pick each other up.”
The six-run explosion Irving mentioned blew open a close contest with Virginia winning 11-3. In that frame, Howard smacked a two-run single to right, followed by Towns’ run-scoring double to left, followed by Irving’s double to right, with him eventually scoring as well.
O’Connor loves the balance in his attack, the athleticism of each player with speed on the bases and several hitters with the power to hit the ball out of the park. He’s not ready to declare it the best offense he’s ever had, but he admits it’s certainly one of the best.
“It’s a different offense than most we’ve had,” McMullan said. “Our guys have been consistent with their approach most of the year, have embraced making adjustments. I think any time you’re consistent with what you do, that it builds confidence within all your players.”
UVa pitching coach Karl Kuhn mentioned recently when discussing the team’s offense that opposing pitching staffs are keenly aware of the entire complexion of the game changing with one pitch to some of the Cavaliers’ power hitters.
Sophomore outfielder Brandon Downes leads the club with nine roundtrippers, while Fisher and Towns have seven apiece, followed by Mike Papi with six and ACC Freshman of the Year Joe McCarthy with four. Altogether, the Wahoos have 41 homers on the season.
The fact that collectively they’ve clobbered so many doubles and triples has to throw a scare into any opposing pitching staff.
“I think the best way to look at it is the athleticism we have in our lineup,” Fisher said. “We have guys that not only can hit the ball out of the stadium, but we also have guys that go first to third and can run the bases so well. We really don’t have anybody on our team that’s really slow. We can take an extra base, steal a clutch base, cover all the aspects.”
All of that comes into play particularly in the postseason when teams are facing pitchers they are unfamiliar with, so hitting can become streaky until batters figure out how to break through.
It doesn’t hurt to have solid hitters one through nine, especially with a leadoff man like Papi, a sophomore outfielder from Tunkhannock, Pa. Papi leads the nation in on base percentage (.527), is ranked 15th in the country in batting (.393), 35th in RBI (58), and 30th in slugging percentage (.625).
“Mike has been very impressive to watch,” McMullan said. “He’s been very consistent and has put together one of the best years of anybody since we’ve been here (10 seasons). The clutch hits he has … you can’t put a measurement on that, not only for what it does for his own confidence, but with his teammates as well.”
Even when starting shortstop Branden Cogswell suffered a broken finger that required surgery late in the regular season, and the lineup had to be reshuffled, Virginia’s offense didn’t skip a beat. Cogswell was a valuable hitter as well, the lead off guy, so when Papi was moved from the middle of the order to the top, critics wondered if it would work.
McMullan wasn’t a bit concerned because Papi is a selective, patient hitter, the kind the coach likes at leadoff, as opposed to the middle of the order where Coach Mac wants hitters to be more aggressive.
Whether or not this proves to be Virginia’s best offensive club in history remains to be seen over the course of this weekend and if anything lies ahead.
Until then, O’Connor & Company are just going to enjoy the ride.