If there is one positive to take from this past weekend in which Virginia was swept at Notre Dame, it’s that Cavaliers right fielder Casey Saucke officially busted out of a dreaded sophomore slump.
Saucke had multi-hit efforts in all three losses, and briefly provided the Hoos a chance to win in the series finale on Sunday when he smashed a go-ahead two-run homer to the opposite field to push UVa in front by a run in the fourth inning.
“Everything just seems to be coming a little bit easier the past couple of games,” he said on Monday while the No. 13 Cavaliers (32-9) prepped to host Liberty (19-20) in non-conference action on Tuesday.
“And I’ve put a lot of work into this team and myself personally,” Saucke said, “so it’s good to start seeing things going my way a little.”
Because in the first half of the season, Saucke, a freshman All-American and an ACC All-Freshman team selection last spring, struggled to repeat his success. Through the Cavaliers’ first 29 games this go-around, he was batting .229 with 27 hits including seven doubles and a homer and had 20 RBI.
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Those numbers were down from the .360 batting average he had last year while tallying 16 doubles and seven homers with 46 RBI.
“To say there was no pressure would be a lie,” Saucke said about the expectations he felt were on him going into the new campaign. “But it’s about how you deal with the pressure, because sometimes baseball can be a hard game, and Coach [Brian] O’Connor says a lot of times that, ‘It’s about how you respond as a player that can make or break you as a good player,’ and I want to be a great player. I know I’m capable of that, so this is all part of that journey.”
Saucke said while trying to get back on track, he knew it was important to regain his confidence and then also fix some mechanical issues in his swing that he needed to correct.
Some days, he said, he’d take 250 to 300 swings in a day in order rep his swing over and over again, and then were others day when he said he needed to pull back and only take 10 to 20 swings in order to rest his mind and body.
But the 6-foot-3, 198-pounder never came out of the lineup, which Saucke said mattered to him because it indicated O’Connor and his coaching staff trusted him to figure out whatever wasn’t working.
“It means the world to me, especially to have my head coach and somebody I’d run through brick wall for, behind me and have my back,” Saucke said. “That’s huge. His belief in me only helped me through it.”
When Saucke went through a much shorter slump as a freshman, O’Connor benched him for three games. This time, though, O’Connor said he knew Saucke could handle it navigating any issues while playing.
“Those first-years, they can hit a wall a little bit,” O’Connor said. “They never experienced the amount of games in a short period of time like they play in college, and physically and mentally they’re just not prepared for it. So, last year that was the right thing to do and I’ve done that a little bit with our first-years this year who’ve played quite a bit.
“That said, Casey Saucke is a great player and he’s one of our best players,” O’Connor continued, “and for guys who have that kind of ability, you stick through it for them and encourage them and they’ll end up being the kind of player that their ability allows them to be.”
Saucke said by the time the Miami series began, he felt like he was returning to form and hit two home runs in the opening game against the Hurricanes. Since then (12 games), he’s hitting .487 with 19 hits including four doubles and three homers to go along with 10 RBI. He raised his season average to .275.
“From that day on,” Saucke said, “I just knew it didn’t matter what pitch was thrown to me because I was just going to be hitting the ball hard and I was going to be putting it in play hard and starting to get hits again. And it was after that day that I felt like myself again.”
He said he just wants to be able to fill his role well and produce to help the Hoos win.
And O’Connor said they’ll need Saucke to hit during the last three weeks of the regular season and into the postseason.
“I felt like over the last three weeks that his approach is getting better, better and better and his at bats have been a lot more consistent,” O’Connor said, “and that’s been a big jolt for us.
“And the middle of our lineup this weekend had a tough weekend — and that’s the way the game is. You go down to VCU and we’re knocking the ball all over the place and then this game can humble you in a hurry. You have to handle the waves, but certainly Casey has really produced for us the last couple of weeks and we need that because it adds length to our lineup and that’s going to be a big spark for us.”
Middle-of-the-order hitters third baseman Jake Gelof, catcher Kyle Teel and first baseman Ethan Anderson were a combined 2-for-34 against the Irish.
O’Connor said the Cavaliers need more from their pitchers as well if they’re going to get back to their winning ways this week with the Flames visiting Tuesday, Towson visiting on Wednesday and then Duke beginning a three-game weekend series at Disharoon Park on Friday.
No UVa starting pitcher threw more than five innings this past weekend. The Cavaliers will start Connelly Early (8-1, 3.05 ERA) against Liberty.
“And when we don’t get a high-quality start or don’t get someone pitching deep into the ballgame,” O’Connor said, “we have to do a better job coming out of the bullpen and keeping the game right there rather than letting it unravel. And in our nine losses, that’s been pretty frequent and the story has been, maybe, you don’t get a quality start and in many of those games we haven’t been able to stop the bleeding.”
First pitch on Tuesday is set for 6 p.m.