Birdball Preview/Prediction: Virginia

Jim Pierce

If you thought last week was tough, wait until the Birdballers head south to take on the Wahoos. Virginia is a top five team, ranked #1 in at least one poll, and the preseason favorite to win the ACC and the national title. You can catch the carnage on WINA.com or Cavaliers Live.

After opening up the season with a great first couple of weeks, Boston College baseball crashed back to earth last week when they lost six in a row and went a full calendar seven days without a victory. Looking within the numbers, BC performed well, saw marked improvement on the field, and took some very good opponents to the limit. They produced; they just didn't produce enough.

So what did we learn? Well, we can't expect BC to walk into the lion's den of a top-ranked, top-tier program and walk out with a sweep victory. We can't expect BC to be a top contender in the ACC rivaling the schools like Florida State. And we should eyeball the schedule for the games that BC should be winning, circling those dates so we can apply the lessons won in defeat.

Take next week, for example. Boston College is set to host Holy Cross in its first home game of the season. That's a game, last year, the Eagles would lose and lose badly. If BC is going to improve this year, they have to go in and beat that team.

Unfortunately, though, Holy Cross isn't the next opponent; Virginia is. Virginia - 50 wins last year and their 10th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament. That's the same Virginia team that hosted a Super Regional last year as the #6 overall national seed but lost to Mississippi State. That's also the same Virginia team that went 2-1 in the ACC Tournament in Division B with wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech. That's also the same Virginia team that, after finishing a game back of North Carolina in the Coastal Division last year, is the preseason 2014 pick to win the ACC and the preseason #1 team according to Baseball America.

In the latest polls, Perfect Game USA has Virginia at #1. Baseball America has them at #3, and the USA Today coaches' poll has them at #5.

I'm gonna go ahead and say it's unlikely BC comes away with a win this weekend.

Let's go through this matchup and tell you what you might already know.

BC Offense vs. Virginia Defense

Let's run down the starters for Virginia this weekend on the hill:

Nathan Kirby. 4-0 in four starts with a 0.74 ERA. That's not good.

Josh Sborz. He's 3-1 in four starts after coming off a year where he led the team with 30 appearances and a 1.98 ERA. Last year, hitters only batted .206 against him. Hitters this year are batting .141 against him. But hey, at least he's walked 15 guys.

Brandon Waddell. He's also 3-1 in four starts, but at least he has an ERA over 4.00. Let's just ignore the fact that hitters are batting .241 against him, making him the "bad starter."

It doesn't matter what BC throws at this staff from a hitter's perspective; they aren't going to hit well. That's why runs are going to be at more of a premium than ever before. And since BC hasn't proven they can't hit well with men on, that's even worse. There is no way in heck they can play station-to-station against the Cavaliers.

The trick for BC is to survive the starting pitchers for five or six innings and try to get a run. And even then, they'll struggle because the first option out of the bullpen can be Connor Jones, one of the best prospects in the ACC as a freshman. He's already gone 17 innings plus with an ERA under 2.00. Opponents are hitting .217 against him.

If there's a plus for BC, it's that some of the Eagles have experience against these pitchers. Kirby played in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. He only appeared in a handful of games, but it was good enough to get him into the NECBL All Star Game.

BC Defense vs. Virginia Offense

Virginia boasts an offense with some of the best hitters in the country. Four Cavalier hitters appeared in the Cape Cod Baseball League last summer, including Derek Fisher and Brandon Cogswell. Both made the All Star Game last year, and Fisher is considered one of the best three prospects in the league. Brandon Downes and Nick Howard rounded out the Virginia hitters on the Cape (Szborz pitched for Orleans).

Fisher will be out for the next four to six weeks with a broken hamate bone in his right wrist, suffered last week against Duke. In his absence, Virginia will still have Mike Papi boasting a .358 average. Papi's hit five homers this year with 16 RBI and a .679 slugging percentage. Downes is only hitting .222 on the year, but he has 15 RBI. Cogswell is only hitting .255, but he has a .369 on base percentage. Nate Irving has a .367 batting average with eight RBI, and Joe McCarthy is bordering on .300 with 10 RBI.

BC will counter with the starting rotation of John Gorman (2-2, 2.58 ERA) on Friday, Andrew Chin (2-0, 1.25 ERA) on Saturday, and Jeff Burke (0-1, 4.45 ERA) on Sunday. Of the three starters, Chin's been rock solid to start the season. Gorman and Burke both have pitched well but have faced one or two bad innings to cost them a victory. They'll have to be lights out against an ultra-talented lineup, but that's part of the thrill of playing a great team.

Prediction

Honestly, I can't understate Virginia's talent enough. They took two of three this past weekend from Duke by winning two one-run ballgames. That came after an easy three-game sweep of Monmouth, and a three-game sweep of East Carolina. While those aren't marquee teams, this is a team that's ultra deep and, worse, ultra young, meaning they're likely to rule the ACC for a while in that Coastal Division.

But there's a silver lining for BC; this Virginia team lost a game to VMI earlier this year, a 3-2 decision. But the Wahoos started Whit Mayberry in that game, and Jones pitched 3.1 innings in relief in that game, allowing three scattered hits while shutting down the Keydets hitters. Where BC has struggled hitting with men on, it's going to be that much harder to score runs.

The last week has been ultra tough on BC, showing them that they are capable of beating worse teams but still have a ways to go if they want to compete at the upper, upper level. They now draw a team that's better than Miami, better than FAU, and will likely be in Omaha come the end of the year. BC isn't remotely close to that level yet, so I'm calling for a Virginia sweep.

But I know this, if BC can keep these games low scoring, especially with Derek Fisher out of the lineup, then they'll be taking a lot of happy positives into their game against Holy Cross last week. I've been very consistent this year in measuring the team's play outside of wins and losses as part of a multi-year build. I've accepted that the last couple of records were necessary if and only if the team continues to improve. They're not at the level of a Virginia yet. But they can take lessons from this weekend, play hard, try some new things, and aim for improvements heading into their first home game

Of course, all the pressure is on Virginia to win these games, especially after only taking two of three from Duke. Find yourself in the right position, and that's baseball - anything's possible.

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