For more coverage on the Cavaliers, be sure to head over to Streaking The Lawn's SB Nation site page and give them a look.
BC Interruption: Virginia won the ACC's first national championship since 1955 last season. What was that like to watch in the context of the season, and has there been a change in perception of the 'Hoos program since then?
Streaking The Lawn: Last year was an incredible ride to say the least. Rewind to early April last year and some of us would have been surprised the Hoos would make the Tournament, much less win it all. It was a very difficult start to the season. Injuries to their top two returning hitters before the season started and weather forcing Virginia to have "home" games in Charleston, SC, Myrtle Beach, SC, and Cary, NC added to the fact that the team had lost seven players to the draft the year before including three in the draft's first forty picks. But you could never doubt that the team had talent. A big weekend series win over Miami showed that Virginia could play with anybody. And then in the season's final series, the Hoos went down to Chapel HIll and swept UNC to solidify their NCAA Tournament resume.
As far as the perception is concerned, it's probably more shocking on a national level that last year's team was the Virginia team to finally break through. The 2011 Hoos were loaded and carried the number one national seed into Omaha and then in 2014 one bad inning in Game One of the College World Series Championship Series was the difference between winning it all and the heartbreak that came about in their loss to Vanderbilt. Since 2009, no team in college baseball has won more games, so while the circumstances surrounding the 2015 team was a bit of a surprise, the fact that Virginia finally broke through wasn't out of nowhere.
BCI: UVa finished second in the Coastal Division, but their 15-15 record was considerably behind Miami. They went into the ACC Tournament as the #7 seed. How did that championship run come together, and were there any outside contributing factors that helped create a run for the title?
STL: Virginia had a very perplexing regular season last year. They were actually a preseason top five team in most polls, but after the early season struggles, including being swept by Virginia Tech, Virginia found themselves way outside the polls. However the team was still talented. They returned two out of three weekend starters from the team that lost in CWS finals the year before, one of whom was projected as a First Round draft pick (Nathan Kirby). And with that talent they were able knock off some the best teams in the ACC including Miami, Notre Dame, and North Carolina. By May, the Hoos were healthier (Preseaon All American Joe McCarthy returned to the lineup) and they were playing good baseball. After being shipped out west for regionals, they won a marathon game to wrap up the regional that didn't end until about 4:30 AM eastern time, and at that point, you could tell something was there. Then, they caught a break. Just down the road from where the Hoos were playing, Maryland knocked off the number one national seed UCLA setting up a Super Regional with Virginia's old ACC rival. In a matter of a week, Virginia went from just making the Tournament to hosting a Super Regional against a team that at least on paper wasn't as good.
I would stop just short of saying that they team was playing with house money, but by the time they got to Omaha, they were playing loose and certainly enjoyed the role of being hunter as opposed to hunted (as they were the year before).
Once they got to Omaha and by the time they played Florida and Vanderbilt, you could throw records out the window. Those games weren't matchups of one seeds against a three seed, rather matchups of teams that belonged in Omaha with players who were drafted the week before, and players who will be drafted in years to come.
BCI: I feel like Virginia kind of gets lost in the ACC landscape next to the Florida schools and the Tobacco Road schools. What's the baseball culture like in Charlottesville, and how does that compare to some of the other schools in the ACC?
STL: The community has absolutely embraced this program. Since construction was completed in 2002, Davenport Field has been included among the finest baseball facilities in the country. With an initial capacity of 2,000, the stadium can now hold over 5,000 when you account for general admission. The growth in capacity has coincided with Virginia's rise to national prominence, as Virginia hasn't missed the NCAA Tournament in Brian's O'Connor's twelve years at UVA. In fact, eight of those, Virginia has hosted, something that has been a direct effect of both the stadium and the fan support.
How it compares to other schools in the ACC, I really can't talk to, though from a completely unbiased, objective, non-blue and orange colored glasses point of view, nothing beats a spring Saturday in Charlottesville. You can start your day by catching the defending National Champion men's tennis team at Snyder Tennis Courts. Then walk a half mile and check out Virginia's perennial national power men's and women's lacrosse teams at Klockner Stadium. Then make the really short walk (Klockner is behind the left field bleachers) to Davenport and take in a ball game. It doesn't get much better than that.
For those reasons it's no surprise O'Connor called Virginia a sleeping giant when he left Notre Dame 13 years ago.
BCI: UVa is 18-11 this year, but they're only 6-6 in the ACC. With a bulk of games played at home, what have you seen out of the team this year and how does it compare to the championship team from last season?
STL: The biggest difference has been the pitching. You don't lose Nathan Kirby, Brandon Waddell, and Josh Sborz and get better. Connor Jones is a stud and will be a first round pick come June, and Adam Haseley has shown he has the makings of being a big time pitcher in this league (he is also a pretty darn good CF and leadoff batter). But after that there is just inexperience and question marks.
On the bright side, I think the lineup is more potent. Especially considering most of the lineup (and the pop) returned from 2015. Matt Thaiss is an RBI machine, Haseley seems to have two hits every night, and Pavin Smith, despite only having three HR on the season hits moon shots in big spots. Add to that the middle of the infield Ernie Clement and Daniel Pinero hitting .358 and .310 respectively.
The big question mark is on the mound, especially the bullpen. Nothing highlights this more than looking at Virginia's closer Alec Bettinger. He leads the team in saves with seven, but is 0-4 on the season with a 5.09 ERA. This is by no means a criticism of Bettinger as he has entered most games in very unfortunate situations (runners on, no outs, etc.). It really just speaks to the inexperience of the bullpen. Outside of Bettinger, Virginia's other four primary relievers had a combined 89 innings pitched coming into the season (and that includes Kevin Doherty who is in his fourth year pitching in the program).
The hope is that the offense holds it together long enough for the pitching to come around. Last weekend, though Virginia lost the series to NC State showed a glimmer of hope that a change will come. Coach O'Connor made a key change inserting Haseley into the starting role on Saturday. He's 6-0 on the season and pitched beautifully in Saturday's win over the Wolfpack. Jones was off on Friday and earned his first loss of the season in the process. I see that as more of an anomaly, so if Hasely proves he can be a reliable weekend starter, Virginia could be a threat to make a run once again.
BCI: How does Boston College win games this weekend, and how do you see the series shaking down?
STL: Boston College can win a game or two if they hang in there. Jones will bring everything he's got on Friday night, but if Mike King can shut down the Hoos' offense and the game is close, anything can happen. It's really that simple. In four of Virginia's 12 losses, the Cavaliers have had a lead through six innings. So if Boston College can hang around and get into the Cavalier bullpen, they can pull out a win or two.
In the end, I think Virginia has the firepower at the plate to pull the series. Add to that a bounce back Friday night from Jones and Haseley settling in as the Saturday starter, the Hoos will just have too much for the Eagles to overcome.