Home Pitching, defense woes put the ceiling on Virginia’s College World Series hopes

Pitching, defense woes put the ceiling on Virginia’s College World Series hopes

Chris Graham
uva baseball
Photo: UVA Athletics

Virginia, with its offense ranking third nationally in hitting, five in runs per game, ninth in OBP and slugging, can slug its way through the first two weekends of the NCAA Tournament.

It’s hard to imagine a team with a 5.92 ERA being able to do anything in the College World Series, where pitching depth is the name of the game.

“To start off, you know, I’m disappointed, certainly because of the opportunity we had in front of us to win an ACC series here at home, after evening the series yesterday, but, you know, bottom line is, you know, they beat the hell out of us, you know. We couldn’t get them out, you know, and that’s a credit to them,” UVA coach Brian O’Connor said after his team’s 17-12 loss to Georgia Tech on Sunday, capping a three-game series that saw the unranked Yellow Jackets batter Virginia pitching for 37 runs on 47 hits and 12 walks.

The weekend began with O’Connor’s one reliable starting pitcher, Evan Blanco, getting touched up for six runs on seven hits and three walks in five innings in a 13-2 loss on Friday night.

O’Connor is still, 41 games into the 2024 season, trying to figure out who his other weekend starters are. He went, for Saturday’s Game 2, with Owen Coady, who didn’t particularly impress in his first ACC weekend start, a 16-7 win at Louisville, in which Coady got a no-decision, giving up three runs on five hits and three walks.

Coady pitched into the fifth on Saturday, giving up two runs, one earned, on two hits and (gasp!) five walks in four and a third innings.

The bullpen let Georgia Tech back into the game after Virginia got out to a 7-2 lead with a six-run outburst in the sixth, allowing the Jackets to get the game to extra innings before a Bobby Whalen walk-off single won it for the ‘Hoos in the 11th.

Sunday’s Game 3 saw Joe Savino get what you could call a rehab start, his third of the season, as he tries to pitch his way back into shape after offseason surgery, going two innings and giving up a pair of unearned runs before handing the game over to a staff day that didn’t go well at all.

Seventeen runs, twenty-five hits.

“I can’t remember the last time a team has done that,” O’Connor said. “You know, unfortunately, you know, every guy we ran out there, they had a great approach against, and we couldn’t get them out on a consistent basis.”

Pitching is an obvious issue for this year’s Virginia squad. So is defense, most noticeably at second base, where freshman Eric Becker has a team-worst eight errors, and sophomore Henry Godbout has four, and third base, where sophomore Luke Hanson has six E’s.

The three-game series loss to Georgia Tech saw the official scorers assess Virginia with five errors.

The eye test had at least another three or four more that should have been ruled E’s.

O’Connor talked in his postgame chat with reporters on Sunday about how his team “didn’t play the defense of what the standard is in our program.”

Just using fielding percentage, an outdated stat, because it relies on the scorers knowing what they’re doing, and they often don’t, Virginia ranks 117th nationally in that stat in 2024.

Last season’s CWS team ranked 33rd in fielding.

“You’ve got to be strong defensively, you know, and, you know, no matter who’s pitching, you have to do that, and that’s been a trademark of our program, but we didn’t do that today, you know, but they’re human,” O’Connor said. “It’s a tough game to play. You know, I don’t believe that they’re entitled to a game like this, because I’ve just never believed that. You know, sometimes people say that you play so many games, that’s going to happen. I don’t believe in that. That should not happen. And, you know, so that’s where my disappointment is.”

There’s time to get it fixed, but not a lot of it. Virginia has 13 regular-season games left, plus whatever there’d be in the ACC Tournament down in Charlotte, at least two games down there in the Queen City, before the first round of the NCAA regionals, which begin on May 31.

I don’t know O’Connor and pitching coach Drew Dickinson can do to fix the issues with the pitching. Blanco, not casting aspersions here, but he’s not a #1 starter for a CWS contender – he’s maybe a #3 guy, at best.

The other guys that O’Connor and Dickinson have tried in the starting rotation – Jay Woolfolk (1-1, 7.39 ERA), Cullen McKay (2-1, 7.96 ERA), Kevin Jaxel (4-1, 10.38 ERA) – just haven’t worked out.

The likely solution is just going with Blanco as the #1 and then going with staff days thereafter – which isn’t ideal, and is almost guaranteed to just wear out the staff as time wears on.

I’m not sure that much can be done about the issues with defense, either, other than, more reps.

This team is going to win a lot of games just because the lineup, 1-9, is full of guys who can rake.

It’s hard to imagine it doing much in the postseason, other than putting a bunch of crooked numbers on the scoreboard.

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].