The #1-ranked Virginia Cavaliers took another yet another ACC series, beating UNC in 2 of 3 games in Charlottesville. The matchup featured the conference's two best pitching staffs, which didn't disappoint; the teams combined for 15 runs in the three games. But it was Nathan Kirby and UVA who came out on top. The Hoos won the first two games 3-2 and 3-1, then lost the chance for the sweep in a 4-2 defeat on Sunday.
Friday night was all about Nate Kirby. He dazzled in 7.2 innings, allowing 2 runs while striking out 12 UNC batters. In each of his past 10 starts this season, Kirby has pitched 6 innings or more and allowed 3 runs or fewer - that's an ace. Carolina's Trent Thornton, arguably the conference's second best starter behind Kirby, looked strong also, but made one big mistake. He badly hung a curveball to Brandon Downes, who promptly deposited it in the "Hoo Zone" in left field for a two-run homer.
When UNC broke through for two runs in the sixth on just one hit, the Hoos quickly responded. Once again, it was Downes who picked up the RBI, when his sac fly scored Nick Howard. Three innings later, Howard struck out the side to shut the door on game 1.
Saturday's nationally televised matchup followed a similar script. However, unlike Kirby, starter Nick Sborz labored through 5 innings, yielding 9 hits. Still, the Tar Heels failed to capitalize, and UVA, who had just 3 hits on the game, once again picked up the big one they needed. This time, it was Kenny Towns who crushed a two-run homer to left field in the 3rd.
That shot put UVA up 3-0, and was plenty for the Houdini-like Sborz, followed by a dominant bullpen effort. Connor Jones pitched 3 innings of 1-hit ball, and Howard was absolutely electric once again, picking up his second consecutive save.
After living on the edge on Friday and Saturday, the offense's meager output wasn't enough in the finale. Brandon Waddell wasn't bad, going 6.1 innings and giving up 4 runs, 3 earned, and Whit Mayberry came in afterwards and prevented further damage. But the Wahoo offense was quiet; Branden Cogswell had an RBI single in the second and John La Prise bunted in a run in the sixth. Those two runs just weren't enough to manage a sweep.
UVA won yet another ACC series against a quality opponent. UNC started the season in the top 15 in the rankings and, while they dropped out after their six-game midseason losing streak, has an excellent pitching staff and is still one of the ACC's better teams. The Tar Heels also were the last opposing ACC team to win a series in Charlottesville, as they swept the Hoos two years ago.
However, questions remain about Virginia's offense. Despite panic from the Wahoo faithful, the team's hitting is definitely not "bad," "terrible," or "atrocious." A better descriptor for a team that's 5th in the ACC in batting average and 4th in slugging percentage, RBI, and runs scored is "decent." Typically, teams ranked #1 in the nation are better than "decent" at scoring runs, but the 33-7 (16-5 ACC) Cavaliers have earned their spot on the strength of their arms. The drop-off is tough to explain - per Jeff White, UVA hit .312 and averaged 7.9 runs per game last season, but are at .273 and 5.5 runs this year. The roster is largely the same. Hopefully, some mean regression is in store.
So yes, it'd be nice if the batters could put up a few more runs, and Sundays return of Derek Fisher to the lineup could help. We'll give him the last word - it may be....a bit optimistic:
Derek Fisher on #UVa offensive woes: "We have the best pitching staff in the country and soon you'll see we have the best offense as well."— Nate Sulham (@NateSulham) April 20, 2014