Home UVA Baseball Notebook: Pitching, maligned all season, keys ‘Hoos to Supers
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UVA Baseball Notebook: Pitching, maligned all season, keys ‘Hoos to Supers

Suddenly dominant pitching staff dominates Regional

jay woolfolk
Photo: UVA Athletics

Virginia had a team ERA near 6.00 most of the season, but still earned a #12 national seed in the 2024 NCAA Tournament because the offense averaged a shade under 10 runs a game with an OPS over 1.000 and a team-record 113 home runs.

So of course it was that UVA advanced to the program’s ninth Super Regional weekend in 15 years with the offense scoring 18 runs in the three games of the Charlottesville Regional, six of those coming in its last turn at bat, with a grand total of one ball leaving the infield in that ninth-inning rally, with the pitching staff giving up eight runs, seven earned, and pitching to a team ERA of 2.33.

“A lot has been made about our offense, and rightfully so. It’s one of the top offenses in the country, you know. But this weekend, we had to do enough offensively, and we were led by our pitching and defense,” UVA coach Brian O’Connor told reporters Sunday night, after the 9-2 win over Mississippi State that sent the ‘Hoos to the next round.

“This time of the year, you’re going to face great arms in the other dugout, so you got to pitch great, and you got to play great defense. This excites me for what we can potentially do moving forward,” O’Connor said.

The offense did, indeed, just did enough – with 24 hits in 98 at bats (.245 BA), an OBP of .357, a team slugging percentage at .378, well down from the season slash line of .336/.428/.577.

The beleaguered starting rotation, really just a one-and-a-half-man crew coming into the weekend – #1 starter Evan Blanco and #2 man Joe Savino, who had only thrown to one batter in a sixth inning before the Regional round all season – emerged as a force that could be competitive in a possible stretch run.

Blanco, Savino and Jay Woolfolk, the spot starter in Game 3 who went eight-plus innings in the clincher, allowed a combined seven earned runs on 19 hits in 19.2 innings, striking out 22 and walking two.

That’s a combined 3.20 ERA and 1.07 WHIP – elite-level numbers.

The bullpen was even better: nada, no runs in 7.1 innings, four hits, eight strikeouts, three walks, for a 0.00 ERA and 0.95 ERA.

O’Connor, Dickinson were set on starting Woolfolk

Woolfolk began the 2024 season as Virginia’s #3 starter, but lost his spot in the rotation in mid-March, and never did regain the form that he’d had as a short reliever in 2022 and 2023, when he put up numbers impressive enough to draw serious attention from MLB front offices.

Just the quality of his stuff alone – a fastball that touches 95 mph, an above-average cutter, a plus slider – made you think that there was more there than we were seeing.

“It’s always just been that one pitch that’s, you know, messed up a lot of things,” Woolfolk told reporters after his stellar effort Sunday night, in which he went a career-long eight innings, holding Mississippi State to two runs on eight hits, striking out seven and walking one.

Which is to say, it was a mental thing more than anything.

O’Connor and pitching coach Drew Dickinson noticed that, too, and worked with Woolfolk all spring to get him back on track.

“I met with Jay Woolfolk a few different times in my office throughout the season. We had some conversations about what he needed to do. And it’s how he takes those conversations, and he took them like a man, and had the right attitude and the right approach. And when somebody does that, you know, it’s going to come back around,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor and Dickinson wanted to go with Woolfolk to start a game in the ACC Tournament, had UVA advanced to the semifinal round, but didn’t get the chance when Florida State eliminated the Cavaliers early.

“We all know that he was in our rotation at the beginning of the year, and that the best thing for our team, we needed to make some changes,” O’Connor said. “There was growth with him throughout the season, and all of it, I think prepared him. Most importantly, he never lost his confidence. You know, he believed that he could get the job done.”

Capacity crowds create energy for the ‘Hoos

The official capacity at Disharoon Park is 5,919. The two games with Mississippi State, on Saturday night and Sunday night, were sellouts, and the opening game with Penn, with a noon ET start on Friday, drew 5,802.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say how incredible our crowd was. The atmosphere, them sticking it out through the rain, was just incredibly impressive,” O’Connor said after Sunday’s win.

A light rain that began about an hour into Sunday’s contest did little to dampen the atmosphere.

“I got text messages throughout this weekend from friends of mine that really don’t know college baseball, but have been watching it on TV, and I’ve gotten so many messages to say that that this environment here at The Dish is the best that they see on TV, and how crowd loud the crowd is, how much they’re into it. You know, the players feed off that, and you know, when you have all those people behind you, you’re gonna go out and have energy and play your best baseball,” O’Connor said.

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].