Virginia poised for ACC baseball tournament after remarkable regular season

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Virginia enters the ACC baseball tournament fresh off its worst series of the season, prompting absolutely zero public distress from coach Brian O'Connor.

"I'm proud of what our team accomplished in the regular season," he said as the Cavaliers prepared for Thursday's tournament opener against Maryland in Greensboro, N.C. "This team had huge expectations on us from the first pitch of the year, and I felt like we played as good and consistent baseball as anybody in this league and in this country all year long. …

"We ended the season with (college baseball's) fourth-best winning percentage, and not once this year did we have back-to-back losses. So it's a very resilient group. It's a group that handles failure the right way. So we've moved on. … It seems like the players always have shorter memories than the coaches do, and that's probably a good thing."

Virginia (43-11 overall, 22-8 ACC) dropped two-of-three at Wake Forest last weekend, its first loss in 11 series this year. Closer Nick Howard blew a save for only the second time, and the Cavaliers stranded 11 base runners in the finale, three in the ninth inning.

But O'Connor is right. Given Virginia's strength of schedule, not losing consecutive games is remarkable.

Consider Miami and Florida State, teams that along with the Cavaliers dominated the ACC this season. The Hurricanes and Seminoles each endured a pair of two-game losing streaks, and one of three.

Other national contenders such as Florida, Indiana, Oregon State, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Texas and LSU also had multi-game hiccups.

Indeed, consistency is among the reasons Virginia, seeded behind Miami and Florida State in the ACC tournament, remains atop the NCAA's Rating Percentage Index and will host a regional and, if the Cavaliers advance, likely a super regional — the 64-team bracket is unveiled Monday at noon.

Virginia won the ACC tournament in 2009 and '11, which just happens to coincide with the Cavaliers' two College World Series appearances under O'Connor. With a 2.24 team ERA that's the program's lowest since 1971, Virginia is capable of similar runs — if the offense awakens.

The Cavaliers are hitting .279 and average 5.5 runs, both lows in O'Connor's 11 years. They scored only 35 runs in their last nine ACC games.

"I like our offensive club," O'Connor insisted Monday. "I think we have really good athletes that can put pressure on teams in different ways, not only hitting the ball out of ballpark, but with our legs."

Offense has declined nationally of late, a trend O'Connor attributes to dialed-back aluminum bats and increased velocity from pitchers. But that doesn't fully explain his team's marked dip from last season, when Virginia hit .312 and averaged 7.9 runs.

The most productive Cavaliers have been first baseman Mike Papi, who leads the league with 10 home runs and 47 RBI, and outfielder Joe McCarthy (.308, 41 RBI). Both made first-team All-ACC.

Virginia will encounter a power arm Thursday in Maryland's Jake Stinnett, a 6-foot-4 right-hander whose 10.6 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rank second only to North Carolina State All-American Carlos Rodon's 10.7 among ACC pitchers. The Terps (34-19, 15-14) have won nine consecutive games, finished above .500 in ACC play for the first time since 1981 and are in line for their first NCAA bid since 1971.

"We played our best baseball in the last two-and-a-half weeks," second-year coach John Szefc said.

Virginia's other pool games are against North Carolina on Friday and Florida State on Saturday, teams the Cavaliers went 2-1 against during the regular season. Seminoles coach Mike Martin said first-team All-ACC pitcher Luke Weaver (8-3, 2.45 ERA) will start against Virginia.

The Cavaliers scored three runs in seven innings versus Weaver last month, later roughing up the Seminoles' bullpen for a 5-3 victory.

O'Connor altered his weekend rotation against Wake Forest, replacing Josh Sborz with Artie Lewicki, who promptly threw seven shutout innings in Virginia's lone victory over the Deacons. Lewicki, Sborz, Brandon Waddell and co-ACC pitcher of the year Nathan Kirby all could start games if the Cavaliers advance from the pool to Sunday's title contest.

You can book Virginia into that championship game if Papi, McCarthy and Co., hit as well as their leader. O'Connor on Monday was named ACC coach of the year for the fifth time in 11 years.

That's a .455 batting average that would make the Cavaliers virtually untouchable.

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

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