The goal for the Virginia baseball team in 2020 is an obvious one: make the NCAA Tournament. After 14 consecutive seasons in the most postseason, the Cavaliers have fallen short in each of the past two seasons.
Heading into 2020, everyone on the team wants to play baseball deep into the summer.
“It’s so much more fun when you’re winning baseball games,” Virginia senior pitcher Chesdin Harrington said. “We won a handful last year but just not enough. When you get to finish school and go into the final weekend of baseball, you graduate, you get to your ACC Tournament and then you get to play another weekend, hopefully another one after that, and then hopefully a couple weeks in that span, it’s so awesome.”
If the Cavaliers go deep enough into postseason play, they can turn their attention fully to baseball and enjoying the postseason experience as a team.
“You just get to relax,” Harrington said. “You get to hang out with guys you’re going to have relationships with your whole lives.”
To make that experience possible, Virginia needs improvement in 2020. After sputtering down the stretch and failing to find consistent pitching, UVa wants better play across the roster this year. With the ACC returning plenty of talent, Virginia needs consistent excellence to go .500 or above in the league and eventually qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
There’s a blend of experience and young talent in UVa’s 2020 pitching arsenal. Junior Griff McGarry takes the ball for Game No. 1 on Friday. He’ll be followed by Harrington on Saturday and sophomore Mike Vasil on Sunday.
McGarry and Harrington are the more experienced starters, while Vasil enters the 2020 campaign with high expectations. He came to UVa as one of the top recruits in the nation, but struggled last season with 5.93 ERA in 57 2/3 innings pitched. For Virginia to be its best, it needs Vasil to become a reliable starter.
“I think there’s a lot of potential in our pitching staff,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “Certainly, we return a number of guys that had some good experience for us in the past. They’ve got to get better, their numbers need to improve and their performance needs to get better from the past, but now they have some experience under their belt, which is obviously really, really helpful.”
Outside of those three starters, O’Connor says Andrew Abbott will serve as the team’s closer. Devin Ortiz logged successful innings last season, but he’s expected to be used as more of a batter and fielder than a pitcher in 2020.
“It’s gonna be kind of a wait-and-see approach with Devin Ortiz,” O’Connor said. “He’s gonna be in our starting lineup on Friday, and he’s gonna contribute in our lineup I believe quite a bit. He had probably our most productive fall of anybody offensively.”
Expect Ortiz to play mostly first base with a few games and second base mixed in, according to O’Connor. Don’t rule out Ortiz coming out of the bullpen, but for the most part, Virginia expects to use a few other arms for the majority of innings.
Nate Savino is a highly touted freshman who surprised some people by deciding to attend Virginia rather than potentially turning professional. He’s a left-handed pitcher who could find his way on the field very quickly.
O’Connor also mentioned Stephen Schoch, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound transfer from UMBC. He’s a senior who served mostly as a closer for UMBC and brings added depth to the bullpen. Schoch throws sidearm, which excites O’Connor. Add in junior Kyle Whitten and the Cavaliers feature a decent bullpen with quality experience.
Virginia hit an ACC-low 28 home runs a season ago, but the Cavaliers were among the best in the league in batting average.
Zack Gelof and Nic Kent, a pair of sophomores, are expected to play important roles in the lineup. Kent, a former St. Anne’s-Belfield standout, will earn the starting shortstop role in 2020. With the emergence of Ortiz in the fall, expect him to also contribute consistently at the plate.
Brendan Rivoli tied for the team lead with 42 RBI a season ago, and he returns for his junior season. There are quality returning pieces for the Cavaliers.
Chris Newell, a freshman with professional aspirations, will start in centerfield for the Cavaliers on Friday. He’s a talented fielder, and he’s also expected to add power to a lineup that lacked pop last season.
“Chris Newell is an exciting player,” O’Connor said. “He’s got great speed, he’s a true centerfielder that can run it down, he’s got a great arm in the outfield. There’s some really great potential with the bat, but right now it’s inconsistent, as most first years are. He’ll drive some balls out of here in BP that you’re like ‘Oh my gosh.’ The power potential is really special. It’s just a matter of developing some consistency.”
There’s talent in the lineup, and there’s also plenty of young faces. If the experienced players can pull their weight, the offense has the potential to put up runs.
UVa posted the third-best fielding percentage in the ACC last season, and the Cavaliers committed the second-fewest errors in the league.
With the returning talent and a few of the new additions, fielding should remain a strength in 2020. Newell brings speed and athleticism to centerfield, and O’Connor feels confident about moving Kent to shortstop.
“I’ve got a ton of confidence in him that he can do the job at a major college program as the shortstop, and he’s been doing the job in the preseason,” O’Connor said.
Kent played shortstop in high school before playing second base last season. He played shortstop over the summer and in the fall, and O’Connor believes he’s ready for the role.
Fielding could prove to be a key edge for the Cavaliers, who committed 33 fewer errors than their counterparts last season. Issuing walks was an issue for the pitchers last season, but with a more experienced staff and a quality defense, the Cavaliers can limit plays that give other teams easy runs.
Scoring against Virginia could prove difficult given the rotation and the team’s defensive acumen.
The bottom line
When looking at Virginia’s 2020 roster, the potential jumps off the page. The rotation looks like a quality ACC staff, and the lineup features plenty of young talent. In the field, the Cavaliers return some experience and add a handful of athletic youngsters.
Virginia holds potential. It’s up to the Cavaliers to turn that potential into enough wins to return to the NCAA Tournament.