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Brian O’Connor wills UVA to seventh Super Regional appearance

Brian O’Connor
Brian O’Connor. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Brian O’Connor has taken four teams to the College World Series, and the 2015 team won a national championship. Getting his 2021 team to the Super Regionals might be his biggest accomplishment.

His previous six teams to get this far did it the easy way, in a manner of speaking, through the winners bracket, which requires only three wins – and maybe more importantly, three games worth of pitching.

The UVA team that punched its ticket to the Super Regionals Tuesday with a 4-3 10-inning, walkoff win over top seed ODU did it the hard way.

The ‘Hoos lost the opener of the Columbia Regional on Friday to host South Carolina, 4-3, sending them to the losers bracket, meaning a trip to the Supers would require them to go five games.

The first elimination game win, on Saturday, a 13-8 W over the four seed, Jacksonville, kept the season alive, but O’Connor needed to use his presumptive Game 3 starter, Nate Savino, for four and two-thirds innings, after starter Mike Vasil got knocked out in the third.

That forced O’Connor to go with Matt Wyatt for the rematch with South Carolina on Sunday – a Matt Wyatt who had started one game all season, and didn’t get out of the first inning in a 10-2 loss to Liberty back on March 24, getting touched up for five runs in two-thirds of an inning.

After the 3-2 win, in which Wyatt put up five scoreless, two-hit innings, O’Connor had to go to Griff McGarry, who had begun the season as a weekend starter, before losing his job and being relegated to the deep recesses of the bullpen, only getting two innings of work in the previous month and a half.

McGarry struck out eight in three and a third innings in the first game against ODU before having to leave with a blister on his right thumb.

Enter Brandon Neeck, a super effective reliever all year long, who hadn’t gone more than two and a third since high school, then, naturally, gave UVA five and two-thirds, striking out 16 (!), to key the 8-3 win.

At this point, O’Connor had pretty much used everybody he could for extended outings, so when it was announced that his senior DH, Devin Ortiz, was going to get the start in the winner-take-all game against ODU, it was a bit reminiscent of when he made a similar call to go with little-used Adam Haseley, his starting center fielder, in Game 2 of the 2015 CWS Championship Series, with those ‘Hoos down a game.

As he did with Haseley, O’Connor was just hoping to get a couple of innings out of Ortiz, who had thrown two innings in the past two seasons, after a stellar 2019 out of the pen, 4-0 with a 1.78 ERA in 35.1 innings.

Ortiz did more than give Virginia a couple of innings – how about four scoreless, which gave O’Connor a bridge to the back end of his bullpen, setup guy Zach Messinger, secret weapon Andrew Abbott, his Game 1 starter, then Stephen Schoch, who willed himself to three and a third, and a career-high 75 pitches.

Let’s go back and do some framing here to put all of this into perspective. His top starter, Abbott, was 0-1 this weekend, his #2 guy, Vasil, got the hook with nobody out in the third, before having to go to his #3 guy to close out that first win.

To win the next three, O’Connor got five scoreless out of a guy who got two outs in his only other start of the year, got five and two-thirds from two relievers, got four scoreless out of his DH, got three good innings out of a guy that he’d relegated to the scrap heap.

I somehow failed to mention earlier that he had to work around losing Blake Bales and his 0.94 ERA in the first Sunday win after Bales had recorded one out in the sixth due to a shoulder injury.

There’s no reason whatsoever that this Virginia team should still be playing baseball.

It is because of Brian O’Connor.

Story by Chris Graham

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