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Does Virginia have enough pitching to get back to the College World Series?

brian o'connor
Photo: UVA Athletics

Brian O’Connor has a Virginia team with a 5.69 team ERA sitting at 37-14 and a projected Top 16 NCAA Tournament seed with one weekend of regular-season play to go.

This might just be O’Connor’s best coaching job since he led that patchwork 2015 team to a national title.

One key difference between the two teams: that 2015 team could pitch.

The banner team had a 3.49 team ERA – think: Josh Sborz (7-2, 1.60 ERA), Connor Jones (7-3, 3.19 ERA), Brandon Waddell (5-5, 3.93 ERA).

The 2024 ‘Hoos can hit – UVA leads the ACC and ranks sixth nationally in runs per game (9.6), leads the ACC and is eighth nationally in slugging (.572), leads the ACC and is ninth nationally in on-base percentage (.429).

For god’s sake, the team OPS is 1.001.

And yet, the second number in the win-loss record is 14, and that’s because the pitching staff, which was already thin on paper heading into the 2024 season, lost its Opening Day starter, Jack O’Connor, to a season-ending injury, and the #3 starter, Jay Woolfolk, to just being ineffective (7.29 ERA, 1.86 WHIP, 15 extra-base hits, including six homers, allowed in 38.2 innings).

Evan Blanco (5-3, 4.21 ERA, 1.36 WHIP) has been OK as the #1 starter, but going into the final weekend of the regular season, O’Connor is still trying to figure out who his #2 and #3 starters are going to be once we get to the start of the NCAA regionals on May 31.

“We certainly have things to learn,” O’Connor said in a brief media scrum after Virginia’s 13-5 loss to NC State on Sunday. “I’m a big believer, even though, you know, there’s three ball games left in the regular season, it’s important that we continue to learn, because we can get better, and that’s what this is about. And so, we’ve got to take the lessons from this weekend, and apply them and be better next week in our final weekend series of ACC play.”

The result on Saturday, a 9-5 UVA win, may have O’Connor a big step closer in ID’g a #2 starter. Joe Savino, a grad transfer from Elon, went a season-best five innings in the win, allowing three hits, walking one, striking out three and surrendering a lone earned run.

Savino, coming off an offseason injury that delayed his 2024 debut until April 2, has steadily built up his pitch and innings counts over the course of five mostly effective outings, in which he has pitched to a 1.38 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and nine strikeouts versus three walks in 13 innings of work.

“You can see why it was so important to get him back,” O’Connor said after the Saturday win. “You can see why I talked about him in the preseason of what he was going to do for our team. I didn’t know whether it would be out of the bullpen or starting. Certainly, when we had some of our pitchers go down with season-ending injuries, so it’s now in a starting role. And he just shows poise out there, you know, he pitches like a Brian Edgington or Nick Parker that’s been around college baseball, they understand, they don’t panic, they make big pitches in the clutch. And that’s what Joe does. And certainly, it’s a big spark for us.”

Even with that bit of progress with Savino, it’s hard to imagine Virginia getting out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament unless things break perfectly for O’Connor and his team – getting wins in the first two games of the regional from Blanco and Savino, then outhitting the other side in the third game on what would have to be a staff day.

This UVA team just doesn’t have enough pitching to have to go five games through a regional, which is what would happen with a loss in either of the first two games.

As I say that, though, I think back to 2015, and how that team had a pitcher starting in left field, and really probably didn’t deserve an NCAA Tournament bid, and it went on to win it all.

O’Connor magic, man.

This one is tougher, just because of the lack of pitching, is what I’m getting at.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].