Virginia freshman Matt Thaiss punctuated his first taste of college baseball in memorable fashion -- with a walk-off two-run single Sunday's Game 7 of the College & Blue World Series.
That single gave Blue a 3-2 win on Sunday, and a 4-3 win in the annual fall baseball best-of-seven series. A day later, Thaiss and his UVa teammates concluded the 2013 fall ball season with one final practice at Davenport Field.
"There's a great tradition here. And it was a really competitive fall," said Thaiss. "And I can see that carrying over into the spring, and really propelling us to go deep into the season this year."
Prior to Monday's practice, Brian O'Connor called this year's Orange & Blue series the best in his 11 seasons as UVa's head coach.
"I thought there was some players that got a lot better," he explained. "I thought there were some young players, some rookies that showed that they're certainly capable of playing and pitching at this level right away. And certainly we're excited about now going into our strength and conditioning phase, and then into the start of the season."
Thaiss, a catcher, and infielders Daniel Pinero and Tony Butler were three first-year position players O'Connor identified as establishing themselves this fall. He also mentioned a trio of freshman right-handers -- Jack Roberts, Connor Jones, and Alec Bettinger.
Those rookies were part of the Cavaliers' nine-player recruiting class that on Tuesday was ranked No. 14 in the country by Baseball America. Pinero (Houston Astros, Round 20), Jones (San Diego Padres, Round 21), and Thaiss (Boston Red Sox, Round 32) all turned down opportunities to play pro baseball after being drafted last summer to join the UVa program.
"And we need them," O'Connor said of his freshman class. "Every year that we've had a successful year, we've had a certain amount of freshmen that have stepped up and really made serious contributions. And this year is going to be no different. What they do is they give us more depth. It gives us more options throughout the season."
With the arrival of those freshmen also came additional competition for the veterans back from last year's 50-win team. The Cavaliers return seven of nine everyday starters from their 2013 team.
"It's great to see those guys improve," said junior shortstop Branden Cogswell. "I know my freshman fall, I learned an astronomical amount."
"It makes you the best ballplayer you can be," said Thaiss. "When you surround yourself with competition like this, you play to the best potential that you can play. And it's great for a ballplayer, just getting better every day."
"Expectations are expectations," said Cogswell. "And we have our own expectations on this club, of coming out here every day getting better. And as long as we're getting better, and holding each other to the highest standards, that's how we're going to grow as a team."
O'Connor said Monday that this fall didn't settle the two vacancies left in the Cavaliers' everyday lineup following the departures of senior infielders Jared King and Reed Gragnani.
O'Connor said juniors Kenny Towns, Nick Howard, and Mike Papi were all still possibilities to replace King at first base. He mentioned more candidates to replace Gragnani at second base -- including Butler, sophomore John LaPrise, and either Cogswell or Pinero, who are also competing for the shortstop job.
"We're going to have a lot of options and second base and first base, and really all of the infield positions," he said. "And that's the way that you want it at this level of college baseball. You want a lot of guys competing for time, and have maximum options to put the best team out on the field."
Thaiss probably earned himself some playing time next spring with his strong fall at the plate, after hitting a team-best .444 with six RBI in the Orange & Blue World Series.
"Hopefully I can get my time. But I'm just here to help the team," Thaiss said Monday. "Whatever I can do to help the team win, and get us to Omaha."
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