“1186 to Omaha,” a documentary about the Virginia baseball program’s 2015 national title run, debuted on the ACC Network on Sunday. The film looked back at a historic season for Virginia baseball, and one that held a handful of ups and downs.
Injuries hurt the Cavaliers, and they suffered plenty of losses after starting the season a perfect 10-0. When the NCAA Tournament field was announced, the players and coaches held their breath. They made the tournament and put together one of the most memorable runs in tournament history, ending with a national championship.
The past two seasons, the Cavaliers’ seasons ended much differently. After 14 consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament, the Cavaliers own a streak of two consecutive seasons missing the tournament.
For head coach Brian O’Connor and his proud program, the goal in 2020 is to end that streak. To return to the NCAA Tournament, Virginia needs to improve in three key areas from last season when it opens its season Friday against Oklahoma in Pensacola, Florida.
Finish .500 in ACC
The ACC is an elite baseball conference. There’s talent across the league, and this year’s collection of teams might be the best in more than a decade.
“I’ll tell you what,” O’Connor said, “our league, this year, I think is gonna be one of the best in my 16 years here, especially our side. There’s some really, really great ball clubs in the ACC this year, and the preseason top 25 shows that.”
D1Baseball.com lists seven ACC squads in its preseason top 25, with Louisville earning the top ranking. It’s a challenging league, and the conference’s 14 coaches picked Virginia to finish fifth in the seven-team ACC Coastal Division. There’s incredible talent in the ACC.
Regardless of the talent and quality of the conference, Virginia’s goal is to finish .500 or better in conference action. In 2015 when it won the national championship, UVa went 15-15 in the ACC despite critical injuries and it found a rhythm heading into postseason play.
The Cavaliers were 12-18 in ACC action in 2018 and 14-16 in the league last season. To make the NCAA Tournament and boost the program back to where it’s been in recent seasons, the Cavaliers should aim for 15 ACC wins.
The entire pitching staff needs to be better, but the emphasis falls on finding consistent starting pitching.
Virginia allowed at least six runs in 12 ACC games, and it allowed five runs in a handful of other games. Finding reliable pitching helps reduce pressure on the offense to produce 7-10 runs a game just to pick up victories.
To compete in a competitive league like the ACC, Virginia’s starting pitchers need to perform well.
“We’ve got to be better throughout, and I really think a lot of that starts with consistent starting pitching,” O’Connor said. “If you get good, consistent starts on a fairly regular basis, you’re gonna win your fair share of games.”
Drew Dickinson takes over as the team’s pitching coach with Karl Kuhn taking over the head coaching job at Radford. Chesdin Harrington, who is entering his fifth season with the program, feels good about what Dickinson brings. He’s a different guy than Kuhn, but the message isn’t much different.
“Definitely two different styles of coaching, but also preach the same thing: Throw strikes, pound the zone,” Harrington said. “If you want to get outs, if you want to be competitive at this level, you have to pound the zone, and that’s something that we’ve struggled with the last couple years.”
Last season, Virginia gave up the third-most walks in the ACC. Throwing strikes is a goal for this year’s pitching staff, which hopes it can give the Cavaliers the consistency needed to win games.
Power at the plate
Virginia hit 28 home runs in 2019. That was the worst mark in the ACC. Of the eight ACC teams to make the NCAA Tournament, six averaged more than a home run per game. Louisville, which boasted the league’s best ERA, was one of the teams that didn’t average more than a home run per game. The pitching — and a league-leading 140 doubles — made up for a middle-of-the-pack home run statistic. The Cardinals did still launch 52 home runs in 69 games.
O’Connor’s team tied with the Cardinals for the second-best batting average in the league at .292, but the lack of power clearly hurt the team. The Cavaliers don’t need to rely solely on power — the 2015 national title team only hit 35 home runs — but they need to close the gap between home runs allowed and home runs hit, which sat at -12 a season ago.
In addition to hitting few home runs, the Cavaliers hit the ninth-fewest triples and the eighth-fewest doubles in the ACC. Virginia needs an increase in extra-base hits this season to compete in the ACC.
Sophomore Zack Gelof, who hit 13 doubles and two homers in 56 games a season ago, is expected to earn a spot in the middle of the lineup. Added power from players like Gelof could quickly alleviate any concerns about pop in the lineup.
“He’s got a ton of experience, and now he’s only a second year,” O’Connor said. “He’s continued to mature. He’s taken on more of a leadership role, and I think he’s gonna be even better, maybe hit some more balls out of the ballpark … I’m looking forward to his continued development.”