Tuesday, March 15, 2011

baseball preview, part 2

I guess it's a little late-ish for a preview since the baseball team is already 3-0 in ACC play, but whatever. Besides a few rocky innings here and there - none of which happened on Friday - the pitching staff acquitted itself very well thank you in the first weekend of the ACC season, and not against a schlub opponent either. It doesn't get easier this weekend with FSU on the docket.

The batting lineup, though, isn't what we're used to. The hitting is feeling the effects of losing a few key players. But it's warming up and scoring runs, which is the thing. Brian O'Connor is still juggling the order and the positions, which will probably continue most of the year; there isn't quite as much quality as in the past but there's a ton of quantity. Plenty of players who could easily be regulars.

You know I like to go position-by-position, so why don't I just do that?


The duties behind the plate have been split pretty evenly so far between John Hicks and Kenny Swab; they probably will be all year. Both are hitting too well for a day off. Hicks especially. He's been the team's second-best hitter after Robo-Danny Hultzen. When he's not catching he's usually at first base; Swab plays first as well, sometimes, but is as likely to show up in right field.

Hicks and Swab are mainstays in the middle of the lineup. Hicks looks like he's settling into the coveted third spot and Swab is sort of nominally sixth, but can float around depending on who else is starting.


This has been a transient lineup so far, but the infield has been mostly immune to that. Keith Werman is cemented in at second base and Steven Proscia at third. Both should be hitting better than they have, frankly, especially Werman. Werm was a .414 hitter last year, and his BA is less than half of what it was. It may be that defenses are figuring him out, or it may be that the new bat is turning his singles into easy ground balls - Werman has all the power of a grasshopper - but regardless, he's dropped from leadoff to 8th or 9th in the order.

Even so, he's the starting second baseman, because his glove is irreplaceable. Just too good in the field to remove. Proscia's not bad himself, and his hitting isn't that far off last year's pace. He hit the first home run of the season on Sunday to stake UVA to a lead it wouldn't relinquish, and he'll continue to hit square in the middle of the order - often cleanup.

Stephen Bruno started the season as the regular shortstop, but he hasn't played since an injury in the first week of the year. Chris Taylor moved from the outfield and is doing a great job of making it really hard to figure out what to do when Bruno returns. Taylor's hitting has been exemplary (good enough to work his way up to batting leadoff) - regardless of Bruno's status, Taylor will have a spot in the lineup, and his defense has been solid if not amazing.

First base is where Hicks or Swab end up when they're not catching; on days when Hicks catches and Swab is in the outfield, Jared King and Cyber-Danny get their shot here. Danny is Danny; King is truly making it hard to keep him out of the lineup with nine hits in 20 at-bats. He may push for extra time as the season goes on, and we'll probably see less of Danny at first so he can stay fresh for his pitching duties.


It's awfully fluid out there, but slowly settling. Nominally, you have John Barr in left field, Reed Gragnani in center (for now), and David Coleman in right. When the season started, Barr was in center and Coleman in left, but that changed after the ECU series. Taylor moved from right to shortstop after the Auburn tournament, and Swab played right field against ECU, except for Sunday when - guess who - Danny Hultzen started there.

For now, O'Connor seems to have settled on Barr, Gragnani, and Coleman, but Coleman still gets bumped in favor of Swab every so often; this is when you'll see King at first. The offensive production from the outfield is less than amazing, though. Coleman and Gragnani are hitting OK so far, not great; Barr has started off slowly. In the Sunday game against Clemson the trio occupied the 7-8-9 section of the order.

I wouldn't count on this being permanent. Swab will continue to see time in right field, and when Bruno returns there'll be further juggling to be done. It may even be Bruno and not Taylor that gets inserted into the outfield. The arms and fielding abilities of the outfielders remain under evaluation. And freshman Mitchell Shifflett remains a dark horse to get some time as the season goes on as well.


Primarily the bailiwick of Danny the Droid, who happens to be the team's best hitter as well as pitcher. At times there is no DH; Hultzen simply bats for himself when he's pitching. As long as he's mashing the ball he can't be taken out of the lineup; he's simply hitting too well. When Hultzen isn't DHing or hitting for himself, Ryan Levine is the usual replacement. Levine's a sophomore that's come out of almost nowhere - he didn't play at all last year.

Overall, this is a lineup that graduated most of its home-run power (Gosselin, Parker, Grovatt) and had the rest pretty much surgically removed by the new college bats. In other words, it's Brian O'Connor's ultimate dream. BOC loves carousel ball, stealing bases, bunting, the hit-and-run. It's sometimes derided as "small ball" but it isn't really, because that would more correctly describe teams that try to manufacture a run here and a run there with sacrifices, squeeze plays, sac flies, and runner advancement. BOC prefers to flood the box score with hits, hits, and hits, steal whenever he can, and use bunts and the hit-and-run to keep the defense off balance rather than try and squeeze a single run out of an inning. He likes the big inning, he just does it without home runs.

So far the team has attempted about three-and-a-half times as many steals as the opposition (and it should be noticed that the catchers are doing a great job of cutting down base-stealers, and the pitchers are cleaning up after themselves with pickoffs.) There are no specialists. Everybody runs.

As I've said, the hitting is down from previous seasons, but not far enough to keep UVA from being a serious CWS contender. Probably everyone looks "down" thanks to the new bats, and those bats give us a big advantage this year; as a team that's never really depended on the home run to begin with, the lack of them doesn't take away one of our weapons. The lineup isn't awesome, but it's good enough.


Last word on Tony Bennett and Utah and I do mean last. He's not going, never was, and you can believe either Craig Littlepage and TheSabre or semi-delusional Utah fans. You'n'me know how this goes. A name shows up one time in print and no amount of debunking will make that go away until the actual coach is hired. Bennett's failure to show up in Salt Lake City on the day he was said to be there is not enough. Littlepage's denial won't be enough, either, at least not for Utah fans, but it should be all the proof you need. I mean, if you were originally willing to believe Bennett would be willing to take on yet another rebuilding job for a team with lesser facilities, fewer resources, and in a lesser recruiting base, headed to a four-bid league after miserably underachieving in a three-bid one. Oh, and they can't pay him as much. I'll personally guarantee you that Tony Bennett does not get hired at Utah and then let Mike Scott do my talking, and I promise, not a peep more.

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