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Four aces: O’Connor has to figure out how to work Abbott into starting rotation

brian o'connor uva
UVA baseball coach Brian O’Connor at practice. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

UVA baseball coach Brian O’Connor has an interesting problem: too many arms.

The starting rotation returns Griff McGarry (3-0, 1.35 ERA in four starts in 2020), Mike Vasil (2-0, 2.45 ERA in four starts) and Nate Savino (1-0, 3.38 ERA in three starts in 2020), the top-rated college prospect in the 2022 MLB Draft class, per Baseball America, at the top of the rotation.

The buzz in is about Andrew Abbott, a lefty with electric stuff (165Ks in 108.1 IP in three seasons, including 28 in 13.1 IP in 2020), who will be making the move from the back end of the bullpen to the rotation.

O’Connor said the depth on his staff, particularly in the bullpen, with the return of closer Stephen Schoch (1-1, 1.62 ERA, 5 saves, 11 appearances, 24K/10BB in 16.2 IP in 2020), is allowing for Abbott to make the move to the rotation.

“Andrew Abbott starting or not was never about Andrew Abbott. It was about the team and what we felt like we need to do as a program to win the most games and have a chance to win a championship,” O’Connor said.

How to work Abbott, a preseason All-American, into the rotation with a four-game weekly schedule is, well, it’s a damn nice problem to have, especially considering that, in a normal 2020, Abbott would have been an MLB draft pick, and thus not back on Grounds for a fourth season.

“We didn’t think he’d be back in our in our uniform this year,” O’Connor said. “But he’s worked really, really hard and proven to us coaches and teammates that he can be a starting pitcher for us. So he will start for us. The opening weekend, we have not determined what the rotation is. But he’ll pitch in a starting role for us. And he’s doing a really nice job.”

It will be a different experience for Abbott, as he himself notes.

“The bullpen is a little more about appearances, you know, maybe not beginning load and the pitch count that you have. Starting is more of, you know, getting elongated, working longer, throwing more pitches, being able to go deeper in games,” Abbott said. “That’s the main difference between the two, I would say, just getting used to throwing more pitches and just trying to be more consistent during those amount of pitches, than, you know, say throwing one inning and only throwing 15 after you ready to throw five, six, seven, and 75 to 90 maybe even 100.”

“As a starting pitcher, you got to have more than just two (pitches),” O’Connor said. “And also his ability this fall to pitch deeper, higher pitch counts, manage the game a little bit more, to where he could be a little bit more efficient. Maybe as a closer, you’re not as efficient, because those last three outs are the hardest to get. And sometimes you might be into deeper counts and things like that. Because a lot of times you’re only out there for an inning. In a starting capacity, you know, efficiency is really important. And he’s focused on that. And I think his has done a great job.”

Abbott had been envisioned last year as a sort of Josh Sborz, if you remember the role that Sborz filled on the pitching staff of the 2015 national championship team – closer, set-up guy, occasional long reliever.

It’s more than just Schoch that gives O’Connor confidence that he has guys who can get outs behind his starters.

“We’ve got some really good experience and stuff at the options at the end of the game. It’s a long list, Stephen Schoch, Paul Kasanavich (2.16 ERA in 2020), Kyle Witten (2.61 ERA in 2020), Blake Bales (2.08 ERA in 2020).

‘We have some even more reinforcements here,” O’Connor said. “It gives us this luxury to put him at the beginning of the game, and I think really strengthened and makes our team stronger. That, coupled with his development of a third pitch, and that the reality is, you know, this the kid should be in professional baseball right now, right? The uniqueness of the draft did not treat him well. He’s over that, OK, but, you know, he’s earned it, and proven to his teammates that he can do this role and needs to do it. So, it’s the right thing to do in every facet.”

Abbott, for his part, doesn’t care when it is he gets the ball.

“Honestly, I just want to pitch. Doesn’t really matter to me. Just help the team win at the end of the day is the biggest thing,” Abbott said.

“There’s no question that Coach has a hard decision to make, how he’s going to run and operate things, but he’s going to do it in the best way you can to in order for us to win,” Abbott said. “At the end of the day, you just go out and do your job, regardless of where you are. Everyone has proven that they can play at the highest level here at D-1, so, you know, just go out and do your job.

“I want to experience postseason ball here at UVA,” Abbott said. “I’ve been on teams that haven’t made it in the past. Unfortunately, we haven’t made it. But you know, experience postseason ball, and going out and just you know, having fun my last year here, so you know, just taking in the moment as it comes and then try and do my best. And win. I mean, that’s the bottom line. That’s what makes you successful in this game, is winning, so just go out and try to win.”

Story by Chris Graham

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