Virginia being in the College World Series isn’t a surprise. How the Cavaliers got there is.
After starting the year as a consensus preseason top-five team, Virginia struggled throughout the season. Heading into the final weekend of the season, the Cavaliers had to win the series at North Carolina to even qualify for the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. Virginia won the play-in game to reach pool play at the tournament but lost all three games there.
Sent across the country to Lake Elsinore, Calif., as a three-seed, Virginia (39-22) won the Regional and then won a Super Regional against Maryland to reach Omaha. The Cavaliers beat Arkansas 5-3 in Saturday’s College World Series opener to reach Monday’s game against Florida (50-16).
Florida and Virginia lead the country in College World Series appearances (four) since 2009.
OFFENSE: The Gators are on fire at the plate in recent weeks. In six NCAA Tournament games, Florida is hitting .338 (75-222) with 68 runs scored with 30 walks and 33 strikeouts. The Gators have added 12 doubles, one triple and eight home runs. The Florida freshmen continue to excel at the highest stage, hitting .472 (17-36) with three homers, 12 walks, 17 runs scored and 15 RBI in the last three games.
Virginia has scored more than five runs just twice in the last 10 games. Pitching and defense is the formula they follow, but there are still good hitters in the lineup.
Freshman leadoff hitter Adam Haseley, a Windermere, Fla., native, has energized the Cavaliers’ offense at the top with a .352 on-base percentage. Cleanup hitter Matt Thaiss leads the team with a .335 batting average, nine home runs and 61 RBI. Keep an eye on right fielder Joe McCarthy, who missed time this year with a back injury. His .226 batting average is uncharacteristic of the fifth-round pick, and he hit a home run at TD Ameritrade Park in Saturday’s opener.
Virginia hits .274 with a .361 on-base percentage compared to Florida’s .300 batting average and .385 on-base percentage.
PITCHING: This is a tricky category on paper. Every Florida arm is fresh, and there are a lot of quality ones available behind Monday’s starter A.J. Puk (9-3, 3.96 ERA). However, Virginia does have the experience edge on Monday. Cavaliers starting pitcher Brandon Waddell is 3-5 with a 4.15 ERA this year, but he was an important part of a Virginia pitching staff that helped the team reach the championship series in Omaha last season. Waddell has pitched in the bright lights of the College World Series and knows how to handle that pressure.
We saw some of the nerves that can come from serving as the starting pitcher in Omaha when Logan Shore struggled against Miami on Saturday. The offense bailed him out, but Shore’s command was not sharp and he pitched up in the strike zone. Puk, who has been known to lose control of his pitches at times this year, could battle the same thing.
The x-factor here is Virginia left-hander Nathan Kirby. The ace of the Virginia staff all season, Kirby is battling a lat strain and hasn’t pitched since suffering it on April 17. However, Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said Kirby is cleared to pitch and could come out of the bullpen as soon as Monday. It’s unknown how many pitches he would be able to throw after not pitching for almost two months.
DEFENSE: There is no team in America that would have an advantage over Florida in this category. The Gators continue to field .985 on the season despite some shaky moments on Saturday in the early moments. Second baseman Dalton Guthrie couldn’t complete a transfer on what should’ve been a double play ball in the first inning, and catcher Mike Rivera misplayed a pop up in foul territory.
With one game under their belt, the Gators should be better defensively on Monday. The athleticism of this group is easy to see, and one game of experience under the bright lights should only help.
Virginia is fielding .969 this season. Third baseman Kenny Towns and shortstop Pinero have combined for 35 errors, three fewer than the entire Florida team.