Few teams began their spring seasons this year with more hype than the University of Virginia’s baseball squad. Returning all but one position player from a group that finished 50-12 last year, the Cavaliers entered their season-opener against Kentucky last month ranked No. 1 in the country, the first No. 1 preseason ranking in program history.
All the excitement fell flat when Kentucky beat the Cavaliers 8-3 in that Feb. 14 opener. Virginia put up only five hits in that contest, a meek start for a unit that ranked in the country’s top 10 last year in doubles, triples and slugging.
“It just showed us that we still need to go out there and play good baseball,” said junior third baseman Kenny Towns, who recorded the team’s first RBI of the season that day. “It doesn’t matter what your ranking is. You still have to perform and play well enough to win.”
Towns, a former Lake Braddock standout, is one of two Fairfax natives helping to turn Virginia back in the right direction. The other is sophomore pitcher Josh Sborz, the 2012 Virginia State Player of the Year at McLean High. A year after pitching in a team-high 30 games — the tenth most in program history — Sborz is working through the transition from reliever to starter.
The 6-foot-3 right-hander is 3-1 in weekend starts with a 2.29 earned-run average in 19.2 innings pitched.
“Last year I would only have to pitch for one inning, so my focus wasn’t over a long period of time, whereas now I’ve got to be focused for two hours possibly and pitch almost an entire game,” said Sborz, who has given up nine hits so far this year. “It’s a big difference, but starting is always what I wanted to do, so I’m pleased.”
Sborz’s first start this year helped the Cavaliers get back on the right track. Following a 12-0 blowout against VMI the day after the Kentucky loss, Sborz worked six hitless innings in his longest career outing, allowing three walks and just three balls to leave the infield in a 7-2 win over UNC Wilmington.
Sborz picked up two more wins before battling control problems in his start against Duke last Saturday. Though he struck out three and didn’t allow a hit, Sborz walked eight batters in three innings, bringing his season walk total to 15. That’s already four more than last year, when he pitched 49 innings with a 1.84 ERA.
The real issue in that game, however, was the fact that Virginia lost 3-2 despite surrendering just one hit on the evening. Offensive output has been a struggle for the Cavaliers (12-3) in the season’s early stages, as they have sneaked past several opponents by just one run. Virginia, currently the nation’s third-ranked team, never managed more than three runs in its three games against Duke (9-7) last weekend, a series in which they batted .202 as a team.
Still, coach Brian O’Connor isn’t worried about his team’s bats going cold the rest of the season.
“That comes and goes quite a bit throughout the season,” O’Connor said. “It’s really hard to keep that at a very high level. We’ve had some really great offensive days and some not-so-productive days. But the exciting part I think is that we’ve played 15 ball games and I don’t think we’ve had a real consistent offensive output yet, so that makes it exciting for when we do because I know the talent’s there.”
Among those who have struggled is Towns, who was batting .094 before a couple hits against James Madison on Tuesday bumped him up to .143 on the season. Towns was tied for second on the team last year with seven homers, but he’s only got five hits in 35 at-bats this season.
“Obviously I’m not hitting as well as I’d want to, but I think I’m starting to feel a lot better and more comfortable up there,” said Towns, who has started in 12 of his 13 appearances this season. “I think I’m still playing good defense, so I’m able to help the team in some way. It might not be by driving as many runs as I’d like to, but I’m still able to help the team by playing good defense.”
Sixteen hits in Tuesday’s 13-2 landslide over JMU injected some much needed confidence back into Virginia’s highly touted bats. The Cavaliers believe that if they can put their hitting on par with their impressive early-season pitching and defense, a first-ever national title could be in sight.
“We really want to win a national championship,” Sborz said. “I think that’s everyone’s goal in every sport. But it’s tough to think so far ahead because we have so many games ahead of us. I just want to win one game at a time, win the ACC season, win the ACC championship and then we’ll figure it out from there.”