When I was last in Charlottesville, the Rebels fell in their third game of the 2010 UVA Regional. What I saw was a budding baseball experience similar to that of Ole Miss' Swayze Field about ten years ago. Has fan support picked up since then? Should we expect to meet a lot of Hoos in Omaha?
The UVa baseball brand has been booming since our trip to Omaha in 2009. What you saw in 2010 is probably similar to what it still is at Davenport Field. Fortunately for the program, that certainly isn't all of the fans. Due to the constraints of the stadium, it seems there are countless more fans and more that join the bandwagon with every postseason. I wish we could expand the stadium to fit 10K+ like Swayze, but I don't see it happening anytime soon. I also wish we had a berm to allow people to bring their own coolers, but that won't happen in my lifetime either.
If you make the trip to Omaha I would still expect to see a lot of UVa fans. Coach O'Connor is from just across the river in Iowa and he has a lot of fans in the area since he lead Creighton to the CWS in the early 90s. I think UVa has kindof been the darling of the tournament whenever they've made it because of the local ties he has. I expect a lot of UVa fans to make the trip as well, but I would guess Ole Miss fans will still outnumber the Cavalier fans.
The ACC was, as usual, a strong baseball conference this year. Talk about how facing the likes of Miami, Maryland, and Florida State prepared Virginia to play so well in the postseason.
The ACC prides itself on having quality pitching year in and year out. This year was certainly no different (apparently until the NCAA tournament hit). I think you just have to look at a team like Maryland, who came in 6th in the conference, and made the Super Regionals to see how difficult a conference the ACC it is. As a conference, we certainly haven't had the CWS success like the SEC, but the teams are always there in the top ten and five so when you face teams like that week in and week out, you are prepared for the postseason.
Mike Papi is a player who I'm afraid Ole Miss fans will quickly become familiar with this weekend. Talk about his ability to get on base and what he means to the Cavaliers offense.
He was an absolute monster in the Super Regionals against Maryland. It seemed like no matter when he got up, he got on base. He ended up being drafted in the supplemental round of the draft this year for good reason; he just knows how to get on base. He's got a great eye, but has the ability to place a ball between the 1b and 2b or lace one back up the middle. He's just an all around professional hitter that gets the offense going.
Luckily, he hasn't had to be the end all be all for the offense. Yes, there are certainly some games where he comes through and basically wins the game, but the offense seemed to finally find it's stroke against Maryland. In game 3 of the Super Regionals, he was only able to go 1 for 5, and they were able to put up 11 runs. If Mike Papi is hitting, it certainly helps (and he will get his hits), but hopefully others are ready to pick up the slack if he slumps a bit.
Nathan Kirby has been absolutely phenomenal for the Hoos all season. What is it about him that makes him such a dangerous pitcher?
He's got pretty electric stuff. He's able to mix a sharp slider with a low 90s fastball that keeps hitters off balance. As a first year, he didn't have the mental strength to be a key contributor to the team. Something happened this past offseason that got him on track, and he hasn't looked back. The thing I worry about is him being "on." He wasn't in the game against Maryland and it showed. If he is leaving his slider up in the zone and hanging it more than finishing it, he isn't going to have a good day.
Nick Howard is the guy that UVA likes to go to late, but who are some other arms out of the bullpen to watch for, either in a set up or a closing role?
The guy you will see more often than not is Whit Mayberry. He's a 5th year this season and has seemingly been through it all. If it's early and a starter is struggling, Oak will go to him. If it's the 6th and they need a bridge to Howard, Oak will go to him. I also wouldn't be surprised to see Artie Lewicki if a starter gets in trouble in the 4th or 5th and UVa needs a stop. The 4th year knows how to pitch and was able to come in and shutdown Maryland in game 2 to preserve the lead. If UVa is going to go far in Omaha, they will also need to get 1st year phenom Connor Jones back on track. He was considered a 1st round talent out of high school last year, but spurned the offers from the bigs and decided to come to UVa. The freshman started off well but kindof fell apart in the ACC tournament, and we haven't seen him since. There are too many games over a week and a half for a staff to rely on three guys out of the pen, so Jones needs to find it and find it quickly.
Who is a guy on the team that you don't hear people talk about a lot, but deserves to be a part of the conversation? Maybe he's a middle reliever who isn't called upon much, but does a lot with his opportunities. Or maybe he's a guy who bats late in the order but makes clutch hits when needed.
He actually bats leadoff. Brandon Cogswell doesn't get nearly the credit I think he deserves. In the field the dude makes plays and is a team leader. He was the starting SS last season, but moved to 2b to make room for 1st year Daniel Pinero. At the plate he is overshadowed by Papi, Fisher, and McCarthy, but paces the offense from the get go. If he gets on base, he is likely to score given the offense behind him.
A lot of Ole Miss fans are saying that UVA's the team to beat in this year's College World Series. Part of that is probably post 2009 and 2011 PTSD, but most of it's grounded in some pretty solid evidence. Virginia's as well rounded a ballclub as any in the NCAA right now. How do Virginia fans feel about the chances to take home the hardware? Are fans optimistic, or taking a "don't count your chickens" approach?
UVa fans in general are pretty scared about their shadow when it comes to any sport. Like most college fans, we wait for the other shoe to drop and for the wheels to fall off. I think most of that comes from football where Virginia hasn't been good since what seems like 'Nam. As for baseball, I think we're a pretty confident bunch and think UVa is on the precipice of finally breaking through and winning the whole thing. I expected them to do it in 2010 and they came up short, and I am expecting them to do it this year. There is too much talent on the mound, at the plate, and in the field for UVa fans to think otherwise. I stated from the beginning that I would be disappointed in anything less than a championship series appearance and I think I am sticking to that.
If not UVA or Ole Miss, who is the team to watch in Omaha?
You have to look to Vanderbilt, right? Strong SEC team that is playing excellent baseball when it matters most. I refuse to believe in UC Irvine, and I think this Texas team isn't quite ready. Texas Tech got pretty lucky with the draw they've been given (Miami didn't impress me too much and then they played CofC...). Louisville and TCU are the two I worry about most other than Vandy. Both teams are built solid and played good ball in their Super Regional.
Offer a prediction for Sunday.
I hope this doesn't come off as a "homer pick," but I expect UVa to win by 3 or 4. The offense might be peaking at the right time and if Nathan Kirby can find his slider again, the Hoos should be good to go. I worry about UVa keeping up and scoring as many runs as Ole Miss, so I am going to depend on the Cavalier staff to keep the Rebels in check. I think they are up to the challenge, but I still have to think Ole Miss is capable of scoring 8 and just outhitting UVa.