Like all good college coaches, Virginia baseball's
operates from a set of principles and blueprints, but he appreciates the value of serendipity in teams and seasons.
As the Cavaliers marched through the postseason and earned the program's first trip to the College World Series, O'Connor has talked about embracing the unexpected and riding the wave.
He understands that where plans might not always work out, sometimes people do.
Which brings us to Franco Valdes.
A self-described "loud Cuban" from south Florida, Virginia's junior catcher has been money this postseason. He has deftly handled a pitching staff that's on a remarkable roll and has delivered clutch hit after clutch hit during the
"Let me tell you," O'Connor said the other day, "this guy, Franco Valdes, this time of the year, there's nobody that I'd want to have our back (other) than this kid. He's got a ton of energy, he's our emotional leader out there, he's got a lot of pride. He's not going to come through every time, but this time of the year, this kid's proven for us that he's going to come through most of the time."
Valdes was named Most Outstanding Player of the Irvine, Calif., regional, where he batted .455 and drove in two runs each day in back-to-back wins against No. 1-ranked UC Irvine.
In last weekend's Super Regional in Oxford, Miss., he drove in the tying run in Game 2 and the go-ahead run in Game 3 as Virginia defeated Ole Miss to advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
Valdes has handled a pitching staff that has a 1.45 ERA in the NCAA tournament and has allowed just nine earned runs in 56 innings.
"Franco, what he's done this postseason has just been unbelievable," senior pitcher Andrew Carraway said. "It seems like every time we're out there at the end of the game, he ends up batting and he gets a hit.
"The fact that he's able to raise his game to that level when it counts, one, it's an obvious benefit to the team, and two, it shows that he's a leader on this team. When his number is called, he's going to do it because he wants the ball in that situation where he's got to throw a guy out, or he wants to be at the plate because he knows he can help this team in that way."
Not bad for a guy who landed in Charlottesville by chance, as the result of a last-minute recruiting scramble.
Two years ago, the Cavaliers lost catcher prospect Devin Mesoraco from Pennsylvania when the
drafted him in the first round with the 15th overall pick.
Needing a catcher, Virginia assistant Karl Kuhn talked to his friend, Broward (Fla.) Community College coach Bob Deutschman, who recommended Valdes and was willing to let him go after just one year.
Valdes was at Broward only because his original college choice, Florida International, underwent a coaching change following his senior year in high school in Miami, so he went to his own Plan B.
Valdes visited Virginia and fell in love with the place, he said. The Cavaliers generally don't recruit junior-college players, for academic reasons and because the best players are often gone after three years, which would create a rapidly spinning revolving door that runs counter to O'Connor's methods of program-building.
But because Valdes is a good student — he is majoring in Spanish and minoring in urban planning — and the Cavs would have him for at least two years, he was a good fit.
He always has been a good fit as catcher. He began playing baseball at age 4, and donned catcher's gear as soon as he was permitted.
"It's what I love to do," Valdes said. "I'm very interactive. I can't imagine being out in the outfield waiting for balls to get hit to me. I can't do it. I'm interactive. I'm loud. It just fits my role. I'm a loud guy; I'm going to lead my guys. When you're playing, you need a loud person to communicate and rally the troops, because everyone is looking at you. It's the only position where you're facing everyone, so it's great to be there."
Valdes, a thickly built 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, caught nearly all of the Cavaliers' games last year as a sophomore. He learned Virginia's complicated pitching signals and studied video, to the point where he and Kuhn, the pitching coach, are nearly always on the same page.
He improved his batting average 50 points from last season (he is currently hitting .288), and his clutch-hitting performance is off the charts. His late surge is due in part to the addition of freshman John Hicks, who caught a handful of games this spring and relieved Valdes of everyday catching duties.
"My gas tank has no 'empty' sign," Valdes said. "I'm ready to go whenever. Whatever it takes. Having John Hicks this year to help me out behind the plate was great. He's a great kid. He hits the ball, he's a good catcher."
Virginia's trip to the Series provides Valdes with all of the energy and motivation necessary.
"Now, I have gas in the tank as long as we need it," he said. "Until we have the dogpile in Omaha."