Virginia remains atop baseball rankings, despite season-long scoring funk

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There is much to recommend about Virginia baseball this season, witness the Cavaliers' extended stay atop the national polls. From the weekend starters to the everyday closer, the pitching is historically good. Led by the infield, the defense is airtight, and thanks to the Charlottesville and U.Va. communities, attendance again is at record levels.

But baseball is nothing if not whimsical, as these Cavaliers surely can attest.

With seven of the top eight hitters returning from a team that averaged a stout 7.9 runs, hit .312 and advanced to an NCAA Super Regional, U.Va. coach Brian O'Connor figured to have few, if any, offensive concerns this season.

Improving the defense? Yes. Grooming a replacement for lights-out closer Kyle Crockett? No question.

But offense? Warren Buffett was going to worry about his lunch tab before O'Connor was going to lose sleep over offense.

Or so convention said. Yet after Tuesday's 5-4, 10-inning victory over VCU in Richmond, Virginia is averaging 5.5 runs and batting .274.

Now before suggesting that O'Connor hire Mike Trout ASAP as a hitting coach, understand that in the latest NCAA stats Virginia ranks 89th among 300 Division I teams in scoring, 120th in batting average. But while hardly anemic, the Cavaliers' numbers are not becoming of a College World Series contender and do not approach the standard of O'Connor's remarkable 11 seasons in Charlottesville.

For an entire season, the lowest team average of O'Connor's tenure is .290 in 2005 and '08. His lowest-scoring squad was the '05 bunch, led by Ryan Zimmerman, that averaged 6.1 runs.


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Yes, college baseball curbed offense in 2011 by adjusting the game's aluminum bats. But the Cavaliers hit .304 that year, followed by .296 and .312.

So equipment isn't the issue. The young men in the batter's box are the issue. And when healthy, proven hitters struggle, the problem often is more mental than mechanical.

A first-team All-American last season, Mike Papi is hitting .293, well below his .381 of a year ago, when he became the Cavaliers' first ACC batting champion since 1981. Brandon Downes, who clubbed Tuesday's decisive solo home run, has dipped from .316 to .245. Nearly flawless as a closer this season, Nick Howard has declined from .323 to .254.

Derek Fisher, a .328 hitter this year, missed 25 games with a wrist injury before returning Sunday, but his absence doesn't explain the team's falloff.

"We need to be consistent with what our approach is," O'Connor said after Sunday's 4-2 home loss to North Carolina, a series that drew a record 14,282 to Davenport Field. "I think what we've been addressing, and I hope at some point it sinks in, we've just been way too passive. When you're passive like that, it's really tough to get yourself going."

That passivity is evidenced in the Cavaliers' power numbers. They have 18 home runs in 41 games, compared to 43 in 62 last year. Last season Virginia's slugging percentage was .463. This year it's .372.

Virginia's scoring has been most alarming in league play. The Cavaliers plated only eight runs in three games last weekend against North Carolina, and that wasn't even a season low. They managed just seven in a series against Duke, five versus Clemson. They have scored four or fewer in their last nine ACC games.

So how in the name of Abner Doubleday is Virginia 34-7? How are the Cavaliers 16-5 in the ACC, and how have they won each of their seven conference series to assure the program its 11th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance under O'Connor?

That's easy.

"With the struggles we're having now, thankfully we have the best pitching staff in the entire country," Fisher told media Sunday.

He may be right.

Virginia ranks first nationally in hits allowed per nine innings at 6.2 and third in earned-run average at 2.08. The lowest season ERAs in school history are 1.77 in 1950 and 2.23 in 1971. Throw in a .983 fielding percentage that rates second nationally, and you have the ability to mask an average offense.

Nathan Kirby, who threw a no-hitter at Pittsburgh, Josh Sborz and Brandon Waddell are a combined 17-4 as weekend starters. Connor Jones in middle relief and Whit Mayberry as a set-up man have been invaluable.

But Howard, a 6-foot-4 right-hander who pitched in relief only once in 13 appearances last season, has been a revelation. He has 13 saves, already one more than Crockett recorded last year.

While Crockett, a Poquoson High graduate, thrives with the Cleveland Indians' Double-A affiliate in Akron, Ohio, his former Virginia teammates look ahead to Wednesday's home game against Richmond, a weekend series at Florida State, and a date next Tuesday at Norfolk's Harbor Park versus Old Dominion.

The Tallahassee trip will match the Cavaliers against the nation's fifth-ranked team and the ACC's top-scoring offense (7.1 runs per game). Will Virginia continue to lean disproportionately on pitching and defense, sentencing fans to daily, ninth-inning heartburn? Or, are the Cavaliers due for a prolonged scoring binge?

A fourth College World Series in seven years could well hinge on the answer.

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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