April 2, 2014
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- They're not televised, they're rarely against marquee opponents, and they don't draw sellout crowds to Davenport Field.
That doesn't make the UVa baseball team's midweek games any less important.
Top-ranked Virginia swept a three-game series from Virginia Tech last weekend, and this weekend will bring another ACC series, at Pittsburgh. The Cavaliers' focus heading into the week, though, was their games with Old Dominion and George Washington.
After UVa's 7-4 win over Virginia Tech on Sunday afternoon, head coach Brian O'Connor talked to his players about the upcoming non-conference games.
"They all count the same, and they're important when you want to build your résumé for the NCAA," O'Connor said Tuesday night after Virginia's 7-1 victory over ODU.
In the RPI that the NCAA released Monday, the Monarchs (16-12) were ranked No. 40.
"So that's a big win for us," O'Connor said. "They'll win a lot of ball games this year, so certainly there's a lot of value in that.
"Not only that, you want to play good, consistent, winning baseball. When I came here 11 years ago, that was my goal: that we'd just play consistent year-after-year winning baseball, and these midweek games have a lot to do with it."
O'Connor's record at UVa is 485-165-2, and he's guided the Cavaliers to the NCAA tournament every season.
With the win over ODU, Virginia improved to 24-4 this season. As impressive as that record is, it's not unprecedented for the Wahoos. They were 26-2 at this point of the 2011 season and 25-3 last year.
Their record this season in midweek games is 6-1, the loss coming Feb. 25 to VMI, which won 3-2 in Charlottesville.
Some weeks the Cavaliers play once between ACC series. This week poses a greater challenge to O'Connor's club, especially to its pitching staff. GW (7-17) visits Davenport Field for a 5 p.m. game Wednesday.
"Looking at 18 innings of baseball, quite frankly I was a little bit concerned," O'Connor said, "because you just don't know what you're going to get."
He need not have worried Tuesday. In his third start, freshman right-hander Alec Bettinger pitched brilliantly. Bettinger, a graduate of Hylton High in Woodbridge, allowed only three hits and no runs in a career-high six innings, raising his record to 3-0 and dropping his earned-run average to 0.95.
In the second inning, Bettinger needed only four pitches to retire the Monarchs.
"Alec, he was dealing," said classmate Daniel Pinero, UVa's starting shortstop.
Bettinger "really grew up as a pitcher for us," O'Connor said. "He's made a couple of really nice starts for us. This obviously was his best, against the best opponent he's faced, and no disrespect to anybody else. Old Dominion has a very good team. They're as well-coached [a team] as we will play all year. I know their coaches very well, and their teams will always be very fundamental, and I think that shows in the success they've had this year.
"And so I thought it was a really great test for Alec to go out there. And then he goes out there and responds and pitches six great innings. The thing that he did best was, he was just throwing a lot of fastballs right at the knees. And if you do that, and you play the defense like we've been playing, when you're the other offensive club, you just feel like it's hard to get hits."
Had senior right-hander Artie Lewicki been able to stay healthy, Bettinger would probably be coming out of the bullpen. But an oblique injury has limited Lewicki, who had Tommy John surgery in 2012, to two appearances this season.
"It wasn't the plan at the beginning of the year for me to be the midweek guy," Bettinger said, "but ever since Artie went down, I just kind of had to pick it up."
For the `Hoos, it was fortunate that Bettinger was in such fine form, because the game was scoreless heading into the sixth inning. Through five innings, the Cavaliers stranded eight runners.
"I thought the first five innings we hit a lot of balls hard," O'Connor said. "We had the opportunities, just didn't get the big hit with two outs, and that's going to happen."
In the fourth, Pinero came up with runners on first and third, and grounded out to end the inning.
In the sixth, after junior Branden Cogswell drew a walk, Pinero came up with the bases loaded. There were two outs, and the score was still 0-0.
This time, Pinero said later, "I was like, `You know what? Let's do this.' "
Pinero smacked a fastball through the middle of the infield, scoring two runs, and that provided the jolt UVa's offense needed. By the time ODU recorded the third out, junior Brandon Downes had added a two-run single, sophomore Joe McCarthy a two-run double and sophomore Robbie Coman an RBI single, and Virginia led 7-0.
"Fortunately he didn't try to do too much," O'Connor said of Pinero. "We talk to our players about that all the time. Sometimes as the game goes on and you have opportunities and you don't capitalize on them, [players] try to get beyond themselves and try to move the ball more with their shoulders and try to drive the ball.
"Danny has always had a very simple approach. He doesn't try to do too much ... And the fact that he didn't change in that scenario was important. You stick with something long enough, it'll ultimately be successful for you, and that was a big hit for us and allowed us to break it open."
Cogswell and John La Prise, a sophomore, each went 3 for 4 against ODU. La Prise, who also played flawlessly at third base, raised his batting average to .400.
"You always look forward to playing," said La Prise, who backs up junior Kenny Towns at third. "You just gotta be ready. It's exciting any time I see my name in the lineup."
Cogswell, one of the Cavaliers' top hitters last year before suffering a season-ending injury, lifted his average to .302.
"He's getting better and better," O'Connor said. "He's starting to come. He really is. He had such a terrific offensive year for us last year, and he was off to a slow start this year, but he's starting to show that consistency over the last couple weeks and doing what he's capable of doing."
O'Connor is hoping for a similar return to form from Lewicki, who will start Wednesday against GW.
A weekend starter in 2012, Lewicki has thrown only five innings this season. In his most recent appearance, March 20 against Princeton, Lewicki came out of the bullpen and gave up back-to-back hits, after which O'Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn turned to another reliever, Kevin Doherty.
"To be honest with you, I don't know what he has in him," O'Connor said Tuesday night of Lewicki. "When he toed the rubber two weeks ago, I thought he would look better than he did, and after two batters I just couldn't watch it any more. I just didn't feel like he was ready. I think he's made progress in the last two weeks, so I think it's time to put him back out there. I don't know how long he's going to pitch, I don't know what it's going to look like. But we're to the point now we've got to run him out there and see what we've got."