Andrew Abbott shines against tough Tennessee lineup
The key moment in UVA’s 6-0 win over Tennessee in the College World Series on Sunday may have come the night before, when coach Brian O’Connor had his team in the stands to watch the Vanderbilt-Arizona game.
“They wanted us to come watch the Vandy game just to get a sense of the crowd and the ebbs and flows of the game here,” said starting pitcher Andrew Abbott, who admitted afterward that this heart was “beating a thousand beats per minute” in the first inning, that he was “rushing,” and “just had to slow down, catch my breath and go to work.”
Easier said than done.
“The first inning was mainly just trying to get used to the fans. There’s 22,000 of them here. It’s something not every baseball player is used to, especially in college,” said Abbott, who walked the first batter he faced on Sunday, Liam Spence, on five pitches, then gave up a sharp single to right on an 0-2 pitch to two-hole hitter Max Ferguson, that put runners on the corners with nobody out.
Welcome to your first World Series.
Abbott would get out of the first-inning jam, striking out Jake Rucker, getting Drew Gilbert to pop up to second and then getting Evan Russell to strike out swinging on a 1-2 fastball to end the threat.
There would be two other two-on, no-out jams – in the fifth and sixth – but Abbott would work through those as well.
The senior lefty would end the day with 10 Ks in six scoreless innings, but he’d say afterward that it was his realization that he didn’t need to strike everybody out, that he could rely on his defense, that helped him settle down.
“They’re a good hitting team, so putting the ball in play isn’t that bad,” Abbott said. “Just not relying on yourself, relying on your defense, and Logan (Michaels) behind the plate and the guys in the dugout cheering for you and pushing you to finish. That just means the world. And that’s what really set me to the mentality of, hey, I’ve got to put a stop to this. I’m in my own jam, I want to get out of it.”
It was a moment four years in the making for Abbott, a standout reliever in his first three years in Charlottesville, who had been expected to go in the 2020 MLB Draft.
With the draft cut to five rounds in the COVID year, Abbott didn’t have his name called, and he decided to return to UVA instead of seeking a free-agent minor-league deal, and coach Brian O’Connor threw out a carrot – that if Abbott could develop a third pitch to go with his fastball and curve, he’d make Abbott a starter this spring.
The changeup that he began working on last fall has made him even more effective against righthanded hitters, and the three-pitch repertoire is giving MLB execs more to think about when the draft begins next month, in that you can project Abbott as a lefty reliever as a two-pitch guy, with a fastball that touches 95 mph coming out of the pen to go along with that drop-off-the-table curve, or as a starter, with the fastball and curve neutralizing lefties, and the changeup giving righties something else to think about the second and third time through.
What he was able to do against a talented and deep Tennessee lineup makes Abbott stand out even more thinking down the road.
“Tennessee’s talented, very, very talented,” O’Connor said. “They can beat you with one swing of the bat. And, so, limiting the damage from not walking guys and then just execution. You’ve got to execute it on them. Because they’re very, very skilled. And you know that because of the runs that they’ve put up this year. And so I felt like he was going to be the best guy for us to be able to execute and give us a chance, and he sure did.”
Tennessee’s lineup features six guys with nine or more homers, and the team has belted 98 on the season.
Homers had been an issue for Abbott – he’d allowed 13 in 100.2 innings coming in.
That’s in part because his fastball is at its most effective when he’s able to elevate it late in counts, getting hitters to chase.
Sometimes high fastballs late in counts can tend to elevate with contact and leave the yard.
“I thought it was pretty special execution,” O’Connor said of Abbott’s effort on Sunday. “He’s able to elevate his fastball. In these baseball terms, he’s got pretty special spin rate. He’s able to throw it through the letters and get guys to chase. The breaking ball was good, the change-up to righties.”
Abbott credited pitching coach Drew Dickinson for coming up with the game plan.
“It came to fruition during the game,” Abbott said. “It was mainly just execution of pitches and just try and limit the damage. I got in a little more jams than I would like in that game, to make it interesting. But just having the team defense behind me and the hitters stepping up at the plate just made the difference for us.”
Story by Chris Graham