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Jay Woolfolk, when his team needed him, pitched UVA into the Super Regionals

Chris Graham
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Photo: UVA Athletics

Jay Woolfolk lost his spot in UVA’s starting rotation after giving up four runs on five hits in three and a third innings against Wake Forest way back on March 17.

Seems like forever ago now.

This was ACC Tournament Week. Our minds were still on the OT loss to NC State, and whether the hoops team would get an NCAA Tournament bid.

Woolfolk pitched past one out in the fifth inning just once this season, even further back on March 3, in a win over UMass, when he went six innings, and gave up a run on eight hits, struck out five and walked one.

After his demotion, Woolfolk didn’t exactly do anything to merit getting the spot in the rotation back – in 24.2 innings out of the bullpen, he pitched to a 5.84 ERA with a 1.66 WHIP, with 20 walks in those 24.2 innings.

This from a guy who, you may remember, was in the running to be the starting quarterback for the UVA Football team last summer, after backing up Brennan Armstrong for two seasons, before deciding after the 2023 College World Series to give up football to focus on baseball.

That decision seemed sound – Woolfolk, after making that move, was solid in a summer spent with Team USA, pitching to a 1.93 ERA, in the process moving up the 2024 MLB Draft boards, with some services putting him as high as the third round.

From there, we got to Sunday, and more than a few fans in the stands at The Dish, as UVA was set to face Mississippi State, with a spot in the Super Regionals on the line, groaned when they learned that Brian O’Connor was going with Woolfolk as his starter.

Those groans turned to, told ya so, when projected first-round pick Dakota Jordan launched a 2-1 fastball to the roof of The Clubhouse in left-center to put the Bulldogs on top in the bottom of the first.

But then something unexpected happened: the Jay Woolfolk that O’Connor and UVA fans had been hoping to see in 2024 finally emerged.

After giving up two runs on two hits in the first, Woolfolk started mowing guys down.

He struck out Jordan twice, once looking and once swinging, both on sliders, among his seven Ks on the night.

And he only walked one guy – this from a guy who had walked 34 in 44.2 innings coming into Sunday.

And we’re talking about, every pitch he threw, aside from the last three – more on that in a moment – was fraught with peril.

The Jordan homer had put Mississippi State up 2-1 at the end of one, and Virginia put up a pair of unearned runs in the third to go up 3-2.

It would stay there for-seemingly-ever, with Woolfolk and Mississippi State’s starter, Pico Kohn, who had thrown 22.1 innings coming in, matching each other pretty much pitch for pitch.

That 3-2 margin held up through the third, the fourth …

Woolfolk pitched around a leadoff Hunter Hines double in the fourth, picked off David Mershon at second after striking out Jordan in the sixth, then after giving up a two-out single to Jordan in the eighth – the eighth! – Jordan, on a 2-0 pitch to Hines that was outside for ball three, was caught stealing, officially, in the scorebook.

Actually, Jordan was safe, but then overslid the bag, and shortstop Griff O’Ferrall held the tag, to get out number three.

Virginia would break the game open in the ninth, scoring six runs as Mississippi State melted down – only one ball left the infield, a two-run single to left off the bat of Luke Hanson.

Bulldogs reliever Tyler Davis misplayed an O’Ferrall bunt into two more UVA runs, then Karson Ligon allowed two more runs to score on back-to-back wild pitches.

By that point, it was 9-2, and O’Connor sent Woolfolk back out to the mound wanting his guy to finish it out.

The 30-minute top half of the ninth had taken its toll, so after surrendering a leadoff single to Hines, O’Connor came out to get Woolfolk, who left to maybe the loudest ovation in the history of Disharoon Park at Davenport Field, which is saying something, for a program that has a national championship, and is headed to its ninth Super Regional in 15 years.

“I’ll say this, that, you know, you give young men an opportunity like Jay Woolfolk had tonight, and you see what they’re made of, right. The outing that he had was one of the best outings we’ve ever had in my 21 years at Virginia in such a pivotal game. He was phenomenal. I would have loved to have seen him finish the game, that was the plan, but it didn’t work out. But, just amazing,” O’Connor told reporters after the game.

Woolfolk’s final statline for the night: eight-plus innings, two runs, eight hits, seven strikeouts, one walk, 103 pitches, 68 for strikes.

This from a guy who hadn’t started a game in two and a half months, who had come into the season as a guy seemingly on the verge of big things, then suddenly couldn’t get guys out or even routinely get the ball over the plate, who O’Connor had to be thinking, at best, would give him two or three decent innings on Sunday.

“I just believed that he could get off to us off to a good start, but as the game started moving on in the middle innings, I mean, he was just determined. You know, when he managed that inning with a runner on second base and no outs, I just kept feeling that we had something special here tonight,” O’Connor said.

That inning, again, was the fourth, still early, but catcher Jacob Ference saw that – something special – a couple of hours earlier.

“I realized it in the bullpen before the game,” Ference said. “I could tell his sense of calm confidence, like, radiating, from just, you know, warming up, and then obviously showed that throughout the, you know, first couple innings. Obviously the one home run, but, you know, we moved past that one pitch at a time, and I mean, his stuff was electric. Obviously, you know, the fastball was coming out worked really well, cutter was working really well, you know, I mean, every pitch was available in any count. I mean, it’s the best I’ve seen him all year.”

O’Ferrall, a Woolfolk rival in high school, came into the day with those expectations, at least.

“I was just telling him how much confidence I had in him coming into this game, because I’ve seen him in a state championship, unfortunately, against him, and I’ve seen what he does in games like this. There are just guys who are big-game pitchers, and I just, I had all the confidence in the world with him going up there,” O’Ferrall said.

“Definitely kind of seeing his resilience throughout the season has been pretty incredible,” O’Ferrall said. “He’s done a really good job of turning the page, you know, from appearance to appearance, and that’s why he was such a perfect guy for the situation. It was a clean slate. Have a performance like that in the playoffs, and that’s, that’s all you’re gonna think about.”

The home fans seemed to sense something, too. When Woolfolk and Ference made their way from the bullpen to the UVA dugout a few minutes before the first pitch, Woolfolk got a standing ovation from the fans down the third-base side.

Between that, and the encouragement from his catcher and shortstop, and his coaches – O’Connor and Drew Dickinson, the pitching coach – he had everything he needed in terms of positive mental energy.

“I know this season might not have been what I wanted, but you know, when you have teammates like these guys, have coaches like Coach Oak who believe in you, who keeps throwing you out in those type of situations, you know, you never lose confidence in yourself no matter what goes on on that mound. So, this performance that I had was, you know, I give it all to them. Honestly. I just went out there and played, but you know, without them, I wouldn’t have the confidence that I had to go out there and execute like I did,” Woolfolk said.

Walking off the field after getting the last out in the seventh, and then again after the caught stealing in the eighth, Woolfolk morphed back into being the football player in a baseball uniform, wolfing at his teammates, slamming his glove into the back wall of the dugout after leaving the field.

“I kind of blacked out in those moments. I don’t really remember anything that happened after. But you know, just hearing the crowd, you know, erupt after, you know, three outs, it was, it’s probably the best feeling I’ve had on the mound,” Woolfolk said.

In the pregame, the thinking was, let’s hope Jay gives us a couple of innings.

At the end of the night, Jay Woolfolk had been named the Most Outstanding Player of the Charlottesville Regional.

What a difference three hours, and eight innings of mastery, can make.

“You know, Jay Woolfolk is going to have that for the rest of his life,” O’Connor said. “When his team counted on him, and he needed to step up, he pitched the best game that he’s pitched in our uniform in three years. And you no doubt many years down the road, he’ll be able to reflect on that, and when he’s challenged in his life, or when he needs to step up, for whoever it is, he can reflect back on this opportunity he had tonight, and, you know, remember what he did when everybody needed him most.”

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].