Five UVa baseball questions on opening day
As players back from his most recent College World Series team received their rings last month, Virginia baseball coach Brian O’Connor saw an opportunity.
The story of last year’s team was well documented. One day into April, the Hoos were buried at 11-14 overall and 4-12 in the ACC. They needed to win six of their final seven conference series just to get back to .500 in the conference. That rally was enough to get UVa into an NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years, and eventually, back to Omaha for the fifth time in O’Connor’s 18-year tenure.
Those CWS rings served as a reminder of what that team had to do to earn them. O’Connor used them to challenge this year’s group that it can make the path a little less daunting on themselves.
“Certainly you need to be ready to go out of the gate,” the head baseball coach said, “and you need to take care of business early.”
The 2022 team will take the field for the first time this weekend at the Jerry Bryson Classic in North Carolina, facing Bellarmine on Friday, host Gardner-Webb on Saturday and NJIT on Sunday. After that three-game set, the Hoos will play nine straight at Disharoon Park before hitting the road again to open ACC play at Duke on March 11th.
It’s a more familiar schedule setup for UVa. Last year, COVID precautions prompted the ACC to play 12 conference weekend series instead of the standard 10. So the Wahoos opened up the season at home for the first time since 2009, taking two of three from UConn and beating VMI before traveling to Chapel Hill to open ACC play just four games into the season. The Hoos didn’t win a conference series until their sixth, at Georgia Tech the first weekend in April.
The opening three-game slate is also less daunting than some the Hoos have faced in the recent past. UConn was receiving votes in a few of the national college baseball polls entering last year. In 2020, UVa opened the year by dropping two of three against No. 24 Oklahoma at the Wahoos Classic in Florida. They began the 2019 season by losing to three ranked teams at the MLB4 Collegiate Baseball Tournament in Arizona, starting with No. 1 Vanderbilt on opening day.
This Friday’s opponent, Bellarmine, won just 13 games in its first season as a Division I program last spring. Gardner-Webb has won 30 games four times in the last 10 full seasons. NJIT is coming off the first NCAA regional appearance in program history, where the Highlanders jumped out to an early 3-0 lead on No. 1 national seed Arkansas in the series opener before losing 13-8.
None of the teams on the schedule for UVa’s nine-game homestand begin the season ranked in the D1Baseball.com Top 25. (The Hoos aren’t in that preseason top 25 either, though they are ranked fifth in the country to start the year by Baseball America). For a team coming off its first NCAA appearance in four years, the season’s first month should provide ample opportunity to work out some kinks before conference play arrives.
And there are unknowns surrounding this team entering the season opener. The roster includes 18 newcomers, the largest group of new additions in O’Connor’s tenure. The weekend pitching rotation has been largely rebuilt, beginning with an opening day starter who last started a game as a high school senior four years ago.
Some other questions:
Which freshmen are most likely to make an immediate impact?
Start with Griff O’Ferrall, who will open the season as the Wahoos’ shortstop and potentially the team’s leadoff hitter as well. O’Ferrall beat out two other freshmen, Justin Rubin and Tristan Shoemaker, to earn that starting nod. Teammates and coaches have praised his maturity both on the infield and at the plate.
“He’s done a nice job. Did a great job all fall,” O’Connor said. “He’s a good leader for an 18-year-old in his first year of college baseball. He knows what’s going on.”
Prior to arriving at Disharoon Park, O’Ferrall was named player of the year of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League last summer after leading the league in batting average (.404) and runs scored and stealing 29 bases. Another UVa first-year, Ethan Anderson, dominated the Futures League in New England, leading the circuit in home runs and RBI while slashing .427/.522/.667.
Anderson, who skipped his senior season in high school to enroll at UVa, will begin the season as the backup catcher. But the Hoos will try to find plenty of opportunities to get the switch-hitter’s bat in the lineup, either at first base or as the designated hitter.
Casey Saucke is the other freshman whose potential at the plate will likely lead to early opportunities. Fans caught a glimpse of that potential when Saucke crushed a ball a few rows deep into the left field bleachers in his first at-bat against the Ontario Blue Jays in UVa’s fall ball opener last September. Saucke was the starting DH that afternoon; he spent the preseason playing behind Jake Gelof at third base.
Who could be this season's Jake Gelof?
You have to go back to Justin Novak in 2018 for the last time someone not named Gelof began a baseball season as UVa’s starting third baseman. Zack Gelof started 134 games at the hot corner the past three seasons; his younger brother will be at that spot Friday against Bellarmine.
Jake Gelof emerged down the stretch last season, starting the Hoos’ final 24 games at first base after Devin Ortiz was relegated to DH by an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. But Gelof only made five starts in UVa’s first 32 games—three at second base and two in right field.
“I definitely think it was a great experience going through,” Gelof admitted, “because it sucked.”
There are more than a half-dozen first-year position players on the UVa roster. Some will have to bide their time. As mentioned, Rubin and Shoemaker will begin the year behind O’Ferrall at shortstop. Colin Tuft is behind Teel and Anderson at catcher, and can also play the outfield.
Gelof’s advice to those players: Stay confident and be prepared for when that opportunity comes.
"Just keep working,” Gelof said. “Keep feeling that you can be a contributor. Keep working. Your name’s definitely gonna be called. So being ready, and I think that’s what I did.”
Can Chris Newell get back to his freshman form?
Chris Newell believes a more refined approach at the plate will serve him well heading into his third college season.
“I feel like it was something that I never really had, even including my freshman year,” said the Wahoos’ center fielder. “I kind of just went up there and would just, ‘See ball, hit ball.’ But once you kind of put a target on your back a little bit, people start to pitch you a little bit differently.”
Newell looked like a star-in-the-making during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. He was named the national Co-Freshman of the Year by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper after leading the Hoos with a .407 batting average, 20 RBI and eight stolen bases in 18 games. He also hit four home runs and five doubles, and finished the abbreviated season in the top three in the ACC in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
After that debut, Newell entered last season as a popular preseason All-American selection. But he scuffled for much of the year, hitting just .238 with eight extra-base hits (five doubles, three triples and a pair of homers) during the regular season. He got hot in June, slashing .353/.425/.647 with three homers and seven RBI in the NCAA Tournament, including a .600 batting average and two long balls in Omaha.
But Newell still struck out 11 times in 34 postseason at-bats. That gave him 75 for the season, most for a UVa hitter since Jarrett Parker whiffed 80 times in 2009.
After the season, Newell headed to the Cape with the goal of playing consistent baseball. He was named an all-star. He’s eager to apply his matured approach in the batter’s box this weekend. A more consistent Newell would change the complexion of the Wahoos’ lineup.
“It’s something that I’ve been thinking about, ever since we stopped playing last year in Omaha,” Newell said. “I’m really pumped to get out there and play with all these guys.”
What's the pecking order in the bullpen?
When Matt Wyatt wasn’t listed among the Wahoos’ three starting pitchers, the logical assumption was that the junior right-hander would be slotted at the back of the UVa bullpen. It’s the same career progression taken by guys like Nick Howard and Josh Sborz heading into their third college seasons.
But O’Connor wasn’t ready to commit to that plan on Wednesday.
“I’m not gonna say Matt Wyatt is the closer,” he said. “He’s going to be limited, how much he’s going to pitch early on. So my plan will be to use him this weekend in a one- or two-inning capacity.”
If Wyatt isn’t closing out games this weekend, the logical candidate is Dylan Bowers, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound grad transfer from Northern Colorado. UVa coaches recruited the former starter to Charlottesville with the intent of using him as a late-inning reliever.
Bowers is one of five veteran transfers added to the UVa pitching staff since last season. One, lefty Brian Gursky from USC, will get the start on Sunday against NJIT. Columbia transfer right-hander Will Geerdes, could fill a variety of roles, from starter to long reliever to late-inning situations. O’Connor also mentioned first-year right-hander (and backup quarterback on the football team) Jay Woolfolk as an option late in games.
Coaches have had plenty of praise for second-year lefty Jake Berry, who will begin the year in the bullpen but could also be an option as a midweek starter. Half of left-hander Luke Schauer’s 16 appearances out of the bullpen last year came against ACC opponents. Sixth-year senior Paul Kosanovich, who missed last year’s CWS run with an elbow injury, has been used as a bridge to the back end of the bullpen in the past.
The coaching staff will spend the next few weeks identifying who fits best in some of those high-leverage roles in this year’s bullpen. In the eyes of the head baseball coach, they’re some of the most important roles on the team.
“If you’re gonna win college baseball games,” O’Connor said, “you better be really good out of your bullpen.”
What's the plan for Devin Ortiz?
Ortiz has done a little bit of everything in his four years at UVa. He spent most of last two seasons as the everyday first baseman before shifting to designated hitter down the stretch last spring. As a sophomore, he was arguably the Wahoos’ best reliever, finishing that 2019 season with a 4-0 record and staff-best 1.78 ERA in 18 appearances, with 38 strikeouts and just nine walks in 35 1/3 innings of work.
He made UVa history last June when he hit the program’s first-ever walk-off postseason home run to eliminate Old Dominion from the NCAA Tournament and send the Hoos to a Super Regional. A few hours earlier, Ortiz began that game by throwing four scoreless innings in his first college start.
When the decision was made last offseason that Ortiz would return for a fifth year, it was made with the intention of using the right-hander on the mound more frequently this spring. He’ll be available out of the bullpen this weekend. Or at first base. Or as the designated hitter.
Not even Ortiz knows quite what to expect.
“Just be ready to throw whenever Coach wants me to,” he said with a smile.