Note: This weekend is the annual Reunion Weekend at UVA. So traffic might be a bit heavy.
This article has been updated with a Q&A from Streaking the Lawn, SB Nation's Virginia site. See below.
Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before. The Terps and Wahoos playing an NCAA Tournament Super Regional round at Davenport Stadium in Charlottesville, VA. It was this time last year that these two teams played a tough, three-game set. Unfortunately, Maryland lost the deciding game. Thus at the Lead-Off Banquet this past January, Head Coach John Szefc talked about the feeling of work left to be done, that Maryland wanted to go beyond last year's lofty season. As fate would have it, the Terps are now given exactly that chance at redemption.
Not that the two teams are replicas of last year's squads. Actually, Maryland and Virginia are more similar to each other than to their respective 2014 teams. The Terps and Cavaliers were both highly ranked in the pre-season polls, and to some extent, both teams didn't live up to pre-season expectations. Second, much of the difficulties facing the two teams came as a result of injuries to key hitters as well as a weekend starter on both teams. Third, because of their respective body of work, Maryland and Virginia were both given #3 seeds in the Regional round and sent off packing to the west coast. Finally, the two teams' bread and butter is pitching and timely hitting.
Virginia lost nine players to the MLB draft, including first round pick RHP Nick Howard, RHP Artie Lewicki, and the heart and soul of their team, 1B Mike Papi. This year, injuries to CF Joe McCarthy and outfielder John La Prise have taken a toll on Virginia's offense. Perhaps the most devastating injury was a severe lateral muscle strain that Nathan Kirby, the Cavaliers' ace, suffered in late April.
How bad did it get with Virginia's spate of injuries? At one point this spring the team actually tried out some walk-ons just to fill out their roster. It's clear that the Wahoos needed some existing players to step up, and that's precisely what happened. Catcher Matt Thais was on the pines most of last season; this year he has been one of the team's best hitters (.326 avg, 16 2b, 9hr, 59 rbi). His emergence moved 2014's catcher, Robbie Coman over to first base. Coman is hitting a respectable .297. Third baseman Kenny Towns has been a steady hitter all year long (.299 avg, 5hr, 58 rbi), and shortstop Daniel Pinero's numbers have climbed this season (.299 avg., 6hr). The biggest surprise has been freshman left fielder Pavin Smith (.309 avg, 14 2b, 3 3b, 6hr, 36 bb).
The Cavaliers are not a major threat on the base paths. They've stolen 37 bags in 60 attempts, with Pinero the team's leader with six swipes.
It's possible that Kirby will be available this weekend. The question is, just how effective will he be coming off a seven-week layoff? At the time of his injury the southpaw was one of the semifinalists for the Golden Spikes award. If Kirby pitches and is close to 100%, that will greatly increase Virginia's chances of repeating as Super Regional champs. If he can't pitch then Virginia will rely on RHP Connor Jones (6-2, 2.90 era, 101 so in 96.1 ip) and LHP Brandon Waddell (3-5, 4.12 era). RHP Josh Sborz (4-2, 2.02 era, 14 saves) has been used almost exclusively out of the pen, but could get the nod to start if a game three is played. Sborz started last year's game three, and threw seven shutout inning at the Terps. But if he's needed in the first two games as a closer, then his innings thereafter would be limited.
Although these two teams resemble each other in many ways, there are subtle differences. Virginia hits slightly higher for average, but the Terps have more long ball prowess and run the bases better. Starting pitching is adequate for both teams. A major setback for the Terps would be if Brian Shaffer isn't available to pitch, and unfortunately that's probably the case. In that instance, Maryland's starting rotation would probably be The Unicorn (aka Mike Shawaryn), Ryan Selmer, and Taylor Bloom. That's still an impressive rotation, but it means that Selmer wouldn't be available for long relief should that become necessary. Regardless, if it comes down to middle inning relievers then Maryland would still have the edge there.
Behind enemy lines
1. What are the chances that Nathan Kirby starts this weekend? If he des, how effective do you expect him to be?
The word just this afternoon is that Kirby has been medically cleared but the coaches haven't decided whether or not to play him. Obviously the Hoos all hope to see him back on the mound, as he adds a lot to the rotation. The "who's #3?" question with regards to the pitching staff has made the rounds numerous times the past few weeks and created no shortage of nerves for the Virginia faithful. Whether or not Kirby plays, Coach O'Connor and Coach Kuhn know how to get the best out of their staff.
2. Last year Matt Thaiss sat on the bench. This year he's your top hitter. What has caused such a dramatic change?
The biggest reason is the opportunity to play. With so much of the 2014 squad either graduating or getting drafted, Thaiss's emergence is mostly a matter of timing. Other than Pinero and Towns, a lot of this year's guys were stuck behind more talented-or at least more experienced-players last year: Thaiss wasn't going to replace Nate Irving behind the plate or Mike Papi at first. He's gotten on the field this year and made the most of it.
3. I've been told that Pinero's error count is deceiving, that he made a ton the first half of the season and has since been good. Is that accurate?
It's definitely weird to see Pinero's error count so high. He doubled his number of errors from his freshman season, which is normally when you'd expect a shortstop to get the yips. While the number of errors is split pretty equally between the halves of the season (9 by game 26 in late March, and 9 more in the 23 games since), Pinero has had a fairly clean stretch recently with only 4 errors in the past month and a half.
How to follow
TV: Friday 4pm ESPNU, Saturday 3:00 pm ESPNU, and (if necessary) Sunday 3:00 pm ESPN2/ESPNU.
Audio: Maryland Baseball Network
Stats: Game Tracker
Twitter: @terpsbaseball and @mercator88
The winner goes to the College World Series. Should the Terps prevail, it would surpass last year's finish and be the first time ever that Maryland traveled to Omaha in June.