If you still need to read the pitching half of the preview slap it here. I’ll wait for you to get back.
Good? Ok great. Your optimism should be pretty high, but prepared to have your minds blown. The lineup is stacked top to bottom, and not with the names you expect. All-American level talents Mike Papi, Derek Fisher, and Joe McCarthy return as the meat of the lineup, and reliable veteran bats Kenny Towns, Brandon Downes, and Nick Howard return as well. But the UVA lineup really gets its juice with some fresh faces and the return of a player lost to injury last season. We’ll go position by position:
Center Field: Brandon Downes has a stranglehold on this position. With his stellar defense he should be expected to play at an All ACC level. Rumor out of fall camp is that Downes may also see some time behind the plate. I’m not in love with that prospect, but they’re not paying me to coach. I suspect Downes will hit fifth in the lineup this season.
Left Field: I think this will be a rotation of Mike Papi and Derek Fisher. Papi can play a variety of positions, including right field and first base, but I think will primarily be in left. Fisher on the other hand plays left field only. My guess is whoever is not in the field will be DHing. Fisher had an incredible season in the Cape Cod League over the summer and expectations are that he should continue that success this season. I expect him to hit in the 3 spot. Papi is coming off an All-American season and should be primed to continue that trend. Indications are Papi will lead off again this season.
Right Field: This spot belongs to the Red Menace, sophomore Joe McCarthy. Coming off a very strong freshman campaign where he won ACC freshman of the year, McCarthy is expected to anchor the lineup this season. McCarthy has power for days and the athleticism to steal some bases as well. I expect McCarthy to bat fourth to break up the lefties we have and excel in that spot.
First Base: Nick Howard has been pegged as the starting first baseman/closer for the upcoming season. Howard shifts from third/short stop to first in an effort to not only save his arm, but allow Kenny Towns to play every day at third base. When Howard comes in to pitch, you will either see Towns slide to first and John LaPrise enter the game at third, or have the DH (Papi/Fisher) enter the game and have Papi play first. I expect Howard to hit in the lower third of the lineup, which is impressive considering the talent he has at the plate.
Third Base: As stated above Howard moving to first allows Kenny Towns to slide in to start at third base. Towns burst onto the scene last season with two grand slams in the season opener. It will be hard from him to have the start this year, but Towns should have another great season. I suspect Towns will hit 6th for the Hoos, but that is subject to change depending on how the season progresses.
Second Base: This is the first major surprise of the preview. Second Base will welcome Branden Cogswell back to the field. Before his injury last season, Cogswell was excelling from the leadoff spot and playing very well defensively at shortstop. Well it looks like when he returns this season, he will be in a new spot on the field and in the lineup. Cogswell is the best base stealer in a very athletic lineup, and will use that athleticism out of the two spot. Cogswell bats left-handed, meaning his pull side will be wide open if Mike Papi is occupying first base. You should expect to see a ton of hit and runs from this combination to try and exploit this. This lineup has the chance to become Coach O’Connor’s wet dream in terms of being able to run, hit, and bunt. That begs the question, who is playing shortstop.
Shortstop: Enter Daniel Pinero. A 6 foot 6 true freshman from Toronto who from all indications is an absolutely beast in the field, Pinero enters the season as a real wildcard. For Coach O'Connor to trust him to slide the sure handed Cogswell over to second base means this kid must have the goods to produce. I am certainly very intrigued to see him in action this season. I suspect he will start the season batting ninth to get his athleticism on base for the top of the lineup.
Catcher: We've saved the most interesting position battle for last. I’m going to go back and reference a point I made when Nate Irving was struggling as a true freshman two years ago, and that is that I believe adjusting to catching in college is a similar learning curve to point guard or quarterback. Irving struggled with past balls his freshman season because he had little experience catching pitchers of that caliber, Specifically Branden Kline that season. I strongly believe catchers need to be eased into their every day role, similar to the transition from Franco Valdes to John Hicks. In an ideal world this season would see Irving catch Friday and Saturday and then his freshman backup would catch Sunday. However Irving’s backup Matt Thaiss might just blow convention out of the water.
I mentioned in the pitching post the Connor Jones was the second most impressive new player we saw at the orange and blue world series. Matt Thaiss was the player that beat him out for that title. Thaiss’ bat is very advanced for a true freshman, and his handling of the pitchers we saw him catch seemed to be solid. Thaiss will push Irving for playing time, and I think his bat is what is going to put him over the top. I suspect you will see the staff move Irving around to try and get him some more reps, but Thaiss has the talent to demand playing time. I think both catchers will bat eighth, but while I suspect Irving will stay in that spot, I wouldn't be surprised to see Thaiss move up if he can show the talents he had in the fall.
Projected Order: If I had to guess your opening day lineup would look like this
DH- Derek Fisher
RF- Joe McCarthy
CF- Brandon Downes
1B- Nick Howard
C- Nate Irving
SS- Daniel Pinero
Season Expectations: I think it is safe to say this is the best UVA baseball team we've ever had. I think it is also safe to say this could be the best UVA sports team we've ever had. Expectations are high this season and rightfully so. I think UVA should go into every game they play expecting to win. This lineup is going to hit like crazy, and the pitching staff should shut people down. Do I expect us to go undefeated? Not in the slightest. But I think getting Omaha should be the bare minimum of what you should expect this season. That’s a big statement, but it’s one that I don’t think is unreasonable considering this team. I hope this season drives even more interest in baseball in Charlottesville, and I wouldn't mind seeing those first base bleachers become a more permanent situation. A perennial powerhouse program is in full bloom at Davenport, enjoy it.