Pitching, defense power Cavaliers

Virginia pitchers Brandon Waddell, left,and Whit Mayberry take in the field during team practice on Friday. The duo is part of a Cavaliers pitching staff sporting a 2.31 ERA. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)

Virginia pitchers Brandon Waddell, left,and Whit Mayberry take in the field during team practice on Friday. The duo is part of a Cavaliers pitching staff sporting a 2.31 ERA. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)

By John Davis

Oxford Citizen

OMAHA, Neb. – Pitching and defense. Those are the two parts of the game that the Virginia Cavaliers have relied on to defeat teams in 2014. Ole Miss takes on the Cavaliers in Game 4 of the College World Series on Sunday night at TD Ameritrade Park, a venue that plays well for a talented pitching staff like Virginia.

The Cavaliers have the fifth-best team ERA in the nation (2.31) and an even more impressive fielding percentage (.982) that ranks third overall. They have only committed 45 errors in 63 games, a huge reason the Cavaliers have won 49 of those contests.

The last time Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco came to the CWS, driving the ball out the park was more prevalent. Now, with the way college baseball has changed with the bats, he said teams have to pitch and defend like Virginia in order to win.

“I don’t think you can get to this point unless you can pitch, especially in today’s game. Maybe in the 90s you could out-hit them, but you can’t out-hit teams anymore. You can’t just have that great offensive team and not pitch and play defense,” Bianco said. “You might have a good offense, but you better be able to pitch some and play some defense or you’re not going to get to this point. Not to get into the whole bat thing, but it’s just a different game than it was 20 years ago.”

Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said coming into the season, he was a little unsure about his staff overall. Sunday’s starter, left-hander Nathan Kirby, was 4-1 as a freshman, but he had a 6.06 ERA.

“There was certainly some uncertainty about our staff. I did feel like we had a lot of talent. There was skill on the staff, but there wasn’t a lot of experience because what we had lost from the year before,” said O’Connor, who lost in the super regionals to Mississippi State in 2013.

“I will tell you that the staff took shape really, really quickly. Nathan Kirby has been our No. 1 all year long, and he’s been tremendous. I think our pitching staff is talented. I think the depth is really good. I think we’re pretty good at the end of the game with Nick Howard and some other guys we can bring in before him.”

Big park

Kirby, who leads the team with 1041⁄3 innings pitched, was hoping to use the large ballpark to his advantage against the Rebels. It’s 335 feet down the lines, 375 in the alleys and 408 to dead center field.

“I don’t know much about Ole Miss, but they made it to the College World Series, so they’ve got to be good. All I really know is I’m playing in a pretty big ballpark and that it will play to my advantage,” said Kirby, who is 9-2 with a team-best 1.73 ERA. “This place is huge.”

A slider and fastball are Kirby’s top two pitches.

“I would like to think I’m hard to hit,” he said with a smile. “Hopefully I can get those two pitches by people. It’s a huge honor to get the start.

“I just want to go out there and put my team in the position to win.”

john.davis@journalinc.com