Fauber: Cavs living up to the hype

The last several months have been a pretty special period for University of Virginia fans.

Of course, there was the magical run by the Cavaliers’ men’s basketball team, which saw U.Va. win the ACC regular season and tournament titles, claim a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in nearly 20 years.

But there is another Cavs team that has been quietly having a phenomenal season of its own. Virginia’s baseball team — which has consistently been one of the top-tier teams in the NCAA — has emerged as one of the best in college baseball this year, and if you don’t pay too much attention to the sport, you may not be aware of just how good the Wahoos have been on the diamond this season.

Virginia’s baseball team made history back in January, as the program claimed its first-ever No. 1 ranking in a national poll (Baseball America), and the Cavaliers have done nothing but back up those lofty expectations so far this season. Virginia has floated around the top five of the various national polls and has held a top ranking on numerous occasions. The Cavaliers are currently ranked second in the Baseball America poll.

U.Va. was 28-5 — its third-best start through 33 games in school history — heading into Friday, when it began an important three-game home series against No. 14 Clemson. That overall mark included a 12-3 record against ACC opponents, with the Cavaliers’ only conference losses coming to Duke, Pittsburgh and Miami, which is currently ranked 24th by Baseball America.

A lot of that success for Virginia has come as a result of the Cavaliers’ dominance on the mound. Entering Friday’s game, U.Va. led the ACC and was ranked fourth nationally in earned run average, allowing just 2.01 runs per game. The Cavaliers were also holding opponents to just a .193 batting average before Friday, the best mark in the country, and had given up three or fewer runs in 29 of their 33 games.

Sophomore lefty Nathan Kirby has led the way on the mound for the Cavaliers, as he was 6-1 with a 1.03 ERA and 55 strikeouts in eight starts prior to his outing against Clemson on Friday. He is holding opponents under a .150 batting average, and he tossed a no-hitter against Pittsburgh last weekend, the first for Virginia since the 2011 season. Kirby struck out 18 batters in that game, which is an ACC record.

Virginia has also gotten strong starting pitching performances this season from Josh Sborz (3-1, 2.63 ERA), Brandon Waddell (4-1, 3.14 ERA) and freshman Alec Bettinger (4-0, 0.78 ERA), while the bullpen has been nearly untouchable. Junior Nick Howard (1.76 ERA, 24 strikeouts in 15 1/3 innings pitched) is tied for sixth in the nation with nine saves and David Rosenberger has allowed just one earned run in 12 appearances. Connor Jones has tossed 34 innings while working mostly out of the bullpen and has a 4-1 record with a 1.06 ERA.

The Cavaliers’ offense hasn’t exactly been lighting up the scoreboard, though it really hasn’t had to — Virginia has won 12 games this season when scoring five runs or fewer thanks to its pitching. But that doesn’t mean U.Va. is lacking the impact bats.

Junior outfielder Mike Papi was tied for second in the ACC in home runs (6) prior to Friday and he was tied for third in the conference in RBIs (30) and on-base percentage (.487). Papi was also leading the ACC in runs scored (33) and was fourth in slugging percentage (.545).

Fellow outfielder Joe McCarthy has posted similar numbers this season for the Cavaliers, as he entered Friday batting .316 with three home runs, 27 RBIs and 30 runs scored.

Virginia is entering a crucial part of its schedule starting this weekend, beginning with the aforementioned series with Clemson, which sports one of the conference’s most potent offenses. The Cavaliers then host another weekend conference series next week against North Carolina — which is having a down year this season, by its standards — before traveling to current No. 1 Florida State on April 25-27.

U.Va. will close out the regular season with tough ACC matchups against Georgia Tech (21-13) and Wake Forest (22-13) before the conference tournament.

That’s a tough final stretch for the Cavaliers, but they have positioned themselves to be in a great spot come time for the NCAA tournament. Virginia could be primed for a deep run in the College World Series — they’ve certainly looked like a championship team so far.

Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD