As the calendar turned from March to April, the Virginia Cavaliers were riding high. Sitting at 24-2, 8-2 in the ACC, number five in the country, and coming off a Friday win on the road at rival Virginia Tech the Hoos looked poised for a special season. Then something happened. They dropped the final two games of the series with the Hokies and fast forward to today, have only won one ACC series since going 5-9 in league and are sitting in seventh place in the conference. Is it time to panic or do the Hoos have enough time to right the ship and finish the season strong.
The answer to the first question is no. All things considered Virginia has played to their expectations coming into the year. Back in February they were ranked 19th in D1Baseball’s preseason poll and as of this week are sitting at 21st. If the Cavaliers had not started on such a hot streak and merely traded series wins and losses to start the year, it’s likely they’d be exactly in the same spot they find themselves today. Then there’s the resume. Despite falling in conference, the Hoos are 25-0 in non-conference play. Sure, the non-conference strength of schedule isn’t the best, but going unbeaten in non-league play has allowed the Hoos to avoid landmine losses that can really hurt a team’s resume come May. They have zero Quad three and four losses, something only four other teams in the country can boast. Their RPI of 13 puts them squarely in the hosting conversation and should they finish strong against Louisville, Georgia Tech, and in the ACC Tournament there’s a realistic shot at baseball in Charlottesville in June.
But what’s the difference? How does a team with series wins over Miami (RPI 17) North Carolina State (20), and North Carolina (33) also drop a series to Pitt (67) and get swept by Notre Dame (41)? To me, it’s all on the mound. Just looking at ACC games this season, the Hoos bats averaged 6.7 runs per game during their first ten ACC games (record 8-2) and have only dropped to 6.5 runs per game in their last 14 (record 5-9). However on the pitching side, the difference is stark. After giving up 3.4 runs per game in the first 10, they’ve given up 7.4 runs per game since. Only once in the early season did they give up six runs in a game, however since April 1st they’ve given up six or more runs in eight of the fourteen games.
Unfortunately, there’s no one silver bullet explaining the difference. Outside of Nick Parker missing a start, the rotation has remained consistent, the team’s walks are down, and it’s not like the back end of the schedule has featured offensive juggernauts. Regardless, opponents batters are teeing off on Virginia pitching. Early in the season, hitters were batting .229 against the Hoos, but since, that number has climbed to .310. Furthermore, the hits are leading to more runs as balls are leaving the yard at a ridiculous clip. Virginia pitchers have given up 28 home runs in the last 14 ACC games, compared to just 10 in the first ten contests. In the three games against Notre Dame alone, the Hoos surrendered 10 long balls against a team that ranks in the bottom half of ACC in home runs hit (10 home runs are 18% of the Irish total on the year). The Cavaliers will have to change that going forward, something that gives me pause with Georgia Tech (5th in the conference in HRs) still on the schedule.
But all is not lost. Even if Virginia pitching struggles, the Hoos still boast the leagues best offense (by batting average) with Kyle Teel and Griff O’Ferrall 1-2 in the ACC in average and Ethan Anderson, Ethan O’Donnell, and Jake Gelof all in the top 15. Gelof is still an RBI machine and boasts 19 home runs while Anderson leads the league in doubles and O’Ferrall is second in runs scored.
The offense is strong enough to bail out Virginia pitchers if they have to, but we’ve seen the Hoos ceiling. This is an Omaha-worthy team if the pitching can be just decent. With two series remaining against Louisville and at Georgia Tech the season is still very much in front of them. As they look to finish the season strong, I’ll be looking at the pitching hoping the exam break was just the team needed.