The first 40 games of the Virginia baseball team’s season did not go as planned.
The Cavaliers vowed this year would be different from last, when they missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years. But the Cavaliers stumbled as the spring slogged on, losing to conference and nonconference opponents alike.
Things have taken a turn.
With Wednesday evening’s 2-1 victory over James Madison at Disharoon Park in Charlottesville, Coach Brian O’Connor’s team has won three consecutive games. It’s the Cavaliers’ longest winning streak since they won four in a row from April 6-10, and provides momentum as the team looks toward a weekend series at No. 16 North Carolina.
Afterwards, O’Connor plopped himself down at the postgame press conference podium, glanced down at the box score and made a declaration.
“There’s some Virginia baseball right there,” he said, proudly referencing his team’s pitching and defense.
Similar to Tuesday’s 6-3 win over Liberty, Virginia (25-18) took a lead in the fifth inning it wouldn’t relinquish. James Madison (23-18) had no answer.
The Cavaliers loaded the bases in the fifth when second baseman Nic Kent walked with one out, then knotted the game at one with a sac fly to right field off the bat of left fielder Brendan Rivoli. Virginia took a 2-1 lead when center fielder Cameron Simmons walked with the bases loaded two batters later.
O’Connor used four pitchers in the affair. Starter Billy Price was pulled with two outs in the second, having allowed the game’s first run on a bases-loaded sac bunt. The left-hander underwent a scare in the first inning, when Duke designated hitter Michael Morgan ripped a grounder that popped back up and screamed toward Price. Price instinctively threw his glove in front of his face, saving himself from injury, and threw the ball to first. After a quick visit with the trainer, Price got out of the inning.
He wasn’t as effective in the second inning. Right-hander Devin Ortiz worked out of Price’s jam and stayed on the mound for four more innings, recording five strikeouts and not allowing a run. Ortiz was recruited as a two-way player, but has primarily been used as a pitcher this season.
“He’s been a real bright spot for us. He showed tonight the quality of arm he has. I think he was up to 92-93 mph,” O’Connor said. “He’s been a real jolt to our pitching staff.”
“I’m taking advantage of every opportunity I have,” Ortiz said. “Today I just wanted to throw strikes, not get too deep into counts.”
Right-hander Paul Kosanovich then pitched a pair of scoreless frames before ceding the mound to closer Kyle Whitten for the ninth inning.
The right-hander retired his first two batters, bringing James Madison first baseman Brady Harju to the plate. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound junior leads the Dukes in RBI and is tied for first in homers, and in the sixth inning he crushed a ball to left field that barely missed the fence.
Harju swung and connected for a weak grounder. Shortstop Tanner Morris fielded the slow roller but opted not to throw, with Harju having reached base.
Dallas Jackson was inserted to pinch run for Harju, and the winning run came to the plate.
Whitten forced second baseman Matt Dipasupi to fly out to right field, punching his glove as Alex Tappen recorded the out.
Virginia can make a big statement this weekend with a strong showing at North Carolina (31-11), which sits at first place in the ACC’s Coastal Division, four spots ahead of the Cavaliers.
“Overall, our players are certainly aware of the situation that we’re in,” O’Connor said. “We’ve got to catch fire.”