ACC Baseball Preview, Coastal Division: Can UVA Get Back To The CWS Final?

1. Virginia Cavaliers (53-16, 22-8 ACC, 2nd Coastal)

After the disappointment of losing to Vanderbilt in three games in the National Championship Series, the Cavaliers are anxious to get back on the diamond and begin their quest for Omaha once again. But they can’t get to ahead of themselves.

“Yeah it was disappointing to get to the final game of the season and not win, its tough. But we can’t get too ahead of ourselves and just jump to the end of the season. We still have to take it one game at a time,” said junior catcher Robbie Coman.

Ranked No. 3 in the preseason by, the Cavaliers are aware of the high expectations that they have set for themselves and as a result have set some pretty lofty goals. Not only will they try to win the ACC Coastal Division Regular season title and the ACC Tournament, the ‘Hoos will also try to get back to Omaha and finish what they started and bring home their first College World Series Baseball National Championship. It would be the first Baseball National Championship for an ACC school since Wake Forest in 1955.

The University of Miami has won the Baseball National Championship as recently as 2001, but was still a member of the Big East Conference at the time.

The NCAA National Title Runner-Up was picked as the Preseason ACC favorite in the ACC Baseball Preseason Coaches poll after their stellar 2014 season. The Cavaliers are ranked third in the nation by D1Baseball and Collegiate Baseball in both of their preseason polls respectively.

Virginia returns 14 letterwinners from last season including its entire starting rotation. Junior lefties Nathan Kirby and Brandon Waddell have each been named Preseason All-Americans along with fellow junior, outfielder Joe McCarthy. Kirby was named a first team All-American by ABCA, Baseball America and Louisville Slugger and was named a second team All-American by NCBWA for 2014. He was also named ACC Co-Pitcher of the Year for his efforts last spring.

The southpaw went 9-3 in 2014 with a 2.06 ERA, 112 strikeouts in 113.1 innings pitched and 18 starts. Opponents hit just .175 against him and tossed an 18 strikeout no-hitter against Pitt for his first career complete game and the fifth UVA no-hitter in the last 50 years. Kirby led the ACC in opponents batting average, third in wins, innings pitched and strikeouts, and fifth in ERA.

Waddell will join forces once again with Kirby to form one of the best and fearsome one-two pitching duos in the ACC. Waddell went 10-3 with a 2.45 ERA, 73 strikeouts in 114 innings pitched and 18 starts in his sophomore campaign. His 10 wins and 114 innings pitched was good for second in the ACC in both of those categories last season while being named to third team All-ACC. Waddell was also named to the College World Series All-Tournament team after posting a 3-0 record with a 1.59 ERA over four starts in the NCAA Tournament.

McCarthy who was a First Team All-ACC honoree in the outfield in 2014, was one of two players to start every game in the outfield for the Cavaliers. The junior outfielder hit .301 last season with 16 doubles, two triples, six home runs and 49 RBI in 69 games, reaching base in all but five of them.

After starting in 28 of 45 games last season, expect Coman to take on a bigger role this season behind the dish. Coman threw out 31 percent (4-of-9) of potential base stealers in 2014 while boasting a .989 fielding percentage. Hitting wise, Coman hit .283 with four doubles, one triple, one home run and 15 RBI.  He also hit .294 (5-for-17) in the NCAA Tournament and an even .400 (4-for-10) in the College World Series. In 21 games with the Keene Swamp Bats of the NECBL, Coman led the team with a .325 average, two home runs and 10 RBI.

The Cavaliers are young team with a good solid core of juniors who bring experience. With this group, Virginia has an excellent shot this season to not only win the ACC or the ACC Coastal Division, but to make it all the way back to Omaha where they could make history by bringing home the National Championship to Charlottesville; and back to the ACC for the first time since 1955.

2. Miami Hurricanes (44-19, 24-6 ACC, 1st Coastal)

After a strong regular season where the Hurricanes won the ACC regular season title with a 24-6 conference record, the ‘Canes were upset by Texas Tech in the Regionals of the NCAA Tournament. Returning a number of key players including a trio of Louisville Slugger Preseason All-Americans sophomore catcher Zack Collins, lefty starter Andrew Suarez and closer Bryan Garcia, Miami looks to bounce back and make a run for Omaha.

Picked to finish third in the Coastal Division in the ACC Baseball Coaches Preseason Poll, the Hurricanes were ranked No. 9 in Baseball America’s Top 25 Preseason Poll. Miami has also been ranked in three other Preseason polls, No. 10 by Perfect Game, No. 14 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 15 by D1Baseball.

Collins, won a number of awards as a freshman including Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-American by Baseball America after hitting .298 with 14 doubles, three triples and 11 home runs with 54 RBI in 2014. The 2015 Preseason First Team America was also named Freshman Hitter of the Year and Freshman All-American First Team by NCBWA and Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball and Perfect Game. He was also named ACC Freshman of the Year and All-ACC Third Team in 2014.

Suarez was named a Louisville Slugger Second Team Preseason All-America this and was taken in the 2nd Round (57th overall) by the Washington Nationals in the 2014 MLB Draft, but decided to return for his redshirt-junior season. The southpaw was an All-ACC Third Teamer in 2014 and went 6-3 with a 2.95 ERA, striking out 87 batters in 109.2 innings pitched and 16 starts.

Garcia, the right-handed Miami, Fla. product returns as the closer for his sophomore season after posting a 7-4 record with a 1.75 ERA and 15 saves in 31 appearances as a freshman, earning him All-ACC Second Team and Freshman All-American First Team by Baseball America, NCBWA, Collegiate Baseball, Baseball and Perfect Game. In addition to earning Second Team Preseason All-American honors from Louisville Slugger, Garcia was also named as a preseason All-American by Collegiate Baseball and Perfect Game.

Led by a trio of Preseason All-Americans, the Hurricanes should be able to challenge the Cavaliers and have a good shot at retaining their ACC Regular Season Title.

3. North Carolina Tar Heels (35-27, 15-15 ACC, 4th Coastal)

After making a 13th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, the Tar Heels have made a splash in the Preseason Polls. UNC is ranked No. 6 by and No. 17 by both Perfect Game USA and Baseball America. The Tar Heels were also ranked No. 24 by Collegiate Baseball in their Preseason Top 40 Poll as well.

UNC is led by junior right handers Reilly Hovis and Trent Thornton who were both named Louisville Slugger Preseason Third Team All-Americans by Collegiate Baseball.

Hovis was one of the nation’s best relievers last season as a sophomore. A First Team All-ACC selection in 2014, Hovis went 9-1 with a 2.25 ERA and six saves while striking out 81 batters in 64 innings pitched. He held opposing hitters under the Mendoza line as they were only able to hit .194 against him last season.

In his first season as a weekend starter, Thornton proved that he belonged in the role. The Charlotte, NC native went 7-4 with a 2.73 ERA and a team-leading 83 innings in 95.2 innings pitched. Thornton is expected to take over as the “Ace” of the rotation as the Friday starter this season.

The Tar Heels, who already struggled scoring runs at times, lost their best hitter from last season in shortstop, Michael Russell.  Russell hit a team leading .339 average and a team high 20 doubles last season along with four home runs and 32 RBI. Juniors Landon Lassiter and Sky Bolt will have to step up in Russell’s absence.

Lassiter was second on the team with a .305 average to go with seven doubles, one triple, one home run and 21 RBI. Bolt on the other hand was tied with Russell and departed senior, Tom Zengel with four home runs and was tied for second on the team in RBI (32) with Russell, behind Zengel who drove home 33 runs in 2014.

With the departure of Russell, it wont get any easier for a team that struggled to score runs at times last year with Russell in the lineup. The Tar Heels are going to have to rely on their pitching if they are going to make any noise this season unless Lassiter and Bolt step up big time offensively.

4. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (37-27, 14-16 ACC, 5th Coastal)

Georgia Tech became the lowest seed in conference history to win the ACC Tournament last season when they defeated Maryland 9-4 as a No. 9 seed. This year they will try to do the same, except with a higher seed in the 2015 ACC Tournament.

The Yellow Jackets return 22 letter winners this season but lost 11 total letter winners with six going to the draft including sophomore southpaw, Sam Clay. Clay was a key member of the bullpen last season as he posted a 4-1 record with a 1.26 ERA and eight saves while holding opposing hitters to just a .197 batting average.

Among the key returnees for the Yellow Jackets are junior outfielder Matt Gonzalez and Redshirt-Senior southpaw Devin Stanton.

Gonzalez hit .314 with 21 doubles, one triple, one home run and 37 RBI in 2014 earning him Second Team All-ACC honors. Stanton will lead the rotation this season once again for the Jackets. The lefty posted a 5-3 record with a 2.24 ERA in 76.1 innings pitched over 18 appearances and 12 starts.

Gonzalez and Stanton hope to lead the Yellow Jackets to their second straight and a conference leading 10th time overall, ACC Tournament Championship.

5. Duke Blue Devils (33-25, 16-14 ACC, 3rd Coastal)

Picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division in the ACC Baseball Coaches Preseason , the Blue Devils return 22 players including junior right-hander Michael Matuella and senior right-hander Andrew Istler. Both players were named to Perfect Game’s Top 100 Juniors and Seniors. Matuella was listed as the No. 1 college junior and Istler the No. 29 college senior.

Matuella went 1-3 with a 2.78 ERA in 11 starts in 2014 and held opponents to .190 batting average in 58.1 innings pitched. Istler meanwhile went 8-8 with a 2.84 ERA in 23 appearances and 10 starts for the Blue Devils last season.

Duke looks to improve upon last year’s surprising 3rd place finish and Matuella and Istler are going to have to step up for that to happen.

6. Virginia Tech Hokies (21-31-1, 9-21 ACC, 7th Coastal)

The Hokies are coming off of a disastrous season in which they went 9-21 in ACC play finishing in last place in the Coastal Division. The Hokies also lost both their catcher and “Ace” in the draft last season. Junior catcher Mark Zagunis was selected in the 3rd Round with the 78th overall pick by the Chicago Cubs and junior pitcher Brad Markey was also selected by the Cubs in the 19th round and 559th overall pick.

Zagunis hit a team high .330 average with 10 doubles, two triples, two home runs and 39 RBI in 2014 and was an All-ACC Second Team catcher in 2012 and 2014.

Markey had a hard-luck 2-8 record in 2014 with a 3.61 ERA in 82.1 innings pitched. He also recorded one save in 18 appearances and 12 starts last season.

If the Hokies are going to be successful this season they are going to need to get production from players other than redshirt-sophomore Saige Jenco. Jenco was second on the team last year with a .323 batting average, five doubles, one home run and 16 RBI. Despite the high average, Jenco needs to improve his run production in 2015 to help replace the output left by Zagunis.

Senior Brendan Hayden and sophomore Phil Sciretta will have to help Jenco carry the Hokie offense this season.

Hayden had a strong junior season last year hitting .302, 16 doubles, and a team high seven home runs and 43 RBI. Sciretta appeared in 41 games last year starting in 21 of them. Sciretta hit .391 with 13 RBI. Expect the sophomore to get more playing time this season for the Hokies.

The Hokies success this season rides on the bats of Jenco, Hayden and Sciretta. But three bats won’t be enough to propel Virginia Tech as a surprise team in the ACC this season.

7. Pittsburgh Panthers (22-30, 11-19, ACC, 6th Coastal)

In just its second season in the ACC, the Panthers could be a surprise team this year in the Coastal Division. The Panthers lost seven conference games by one run in 2014 and won six conference games against ranked opponents.  The Panthers swept  No, 23 Georgia Tech and picked up wins against No. 1 Virginia, No. 17 North Carolina and No. 20 Clemson. Those six marquee wins by Pitt in 2014 shows that they can compete with any team in the nation.

The Panthers are ked by seniors Eric Hess and Hobie Harris. Hess will lead the Panthers offensively at the plate while Harris returns to the pitching staff as the main guy out of the bullpen for Pitt.

Hess was third on the team in average hitting .262 with five doubles, one home run and 16 RBI. He is going to have to step up big time for the Panthers after the departure of Casey Roche and Stephen Vranka who were each one-two in average for Pitt last year.

Roche returns to solidify the pitching staff and bullpen after posting a 3-6 record, two saves and a 2.70 ERA in 2014. The Panthers entire starting rotation from last year either graduated or left so pitching will be  a big hole that head coach Joe Jordana is going to have to fill before the start of the rotation.

The future looks bright for Pittsburgh, but the Panthers still have a long way to go before they become champions.

This is Part 2 of a Two-Part ACC Baseball Preview. Here is the Atlantic Division Preview.

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