Nations: Cavaliers baseball is hot ticket

This is invariably the time of year when I’m easily distracted by anything not frozen or icicle encrusted — frankly, I get plenty of that without looking for it living in this part of the world at this particular time of year.

So news that the University of Virginia’s baseball team landed the No. 1 ranking in Baseball America’s preseason college baseball poll was a welcome diversion — got me thinking of baseball, even if this state’s version is played for three-quarters of the season in winter. There are at least those fleeting warm days toward the end of the year to look forward to after shivering through games in March and April.

Catching the Cavaliers at home a few times this season should be well worth a little frostbite, even for home opener against William and Mary on Feb. 18 (yikes). Virginia has never before held a No. 1 preseason ranking in baseball, but this certainly has every appearance of another formidable team. Head coach Brian O’Connor’s team is coming off a 50-12 campaign last season that included a regional championship and what is becoming a customary trip to the NCAA Super Regionals (the Cavs have advanced that far four of the last five seasons). Virginia has reached the 50-win plateau in three of the last four seasons.

Virginia has 22 letter winners back, including eight position players who saw extensive action last season and seven pitchers who logged at least 30 innings apiece. The Cavs have five players who have been named preseason All-Americans be various outlets, headlined by returning first-team All-American outfielder/first baseman Mike Papi. Infielder/pitcher Nick Howard is a top professional prospect, while infielder Branden Cogswell and outfielders Brandon Downes and Derek Fisher help provide plenty of pop for Virginia’s lineup.

Last year, Virginia ranked in the top 10 nationally in runs, doubles, triples, slugging percentage and walks, and eight starters are back from that squad.

The Cavaliers also reeled in a highly regarded nine-player recruiting class this year, rated 14th nationally by Baseball America.

O’Connor has guided Virginia to plenty of success in recent years. Virginia previously held the No. 1 ranking for 13 weeks during the 2010 season and 12 weeks during the 2011 campaign.

The ACC is well represented in this year’s Baseball America preseason poll, with North Carolina State checking in at No. 5 after coming off a 50-16 season and Florida State rated No. 6 following a 47-16 campaign. Clemson (No. 13), Miami (No. 16) and last year’s preseason No. 1 North Carolina (No. 17) are all among the top 25, as is future ACC member Louisville (No. 20). The ACC might not have caught up to the perennial powerhouse SEC — seven programs from that conference garnered preseason top 25 recognition, none higher than No. 7 South Carolina — but with the Cavs leading the way the gap is narrow now.

Virginia’s Davenport Field seats nearly 5,000 fans, but I’m guessing tickets might be scarcer than ever in Charlottesville when the Cavs are in town — even for those frostbite games.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>