Home UVA wins NCAA Tournament opener, uncharacteristically, with its pitching

UVA wins NCAA Tournament opener, uncharacteristically, with its pitching

Chris Graham
joe savino uva baseball
Photo: UVA Athletics

Virginia played its way into a Top 16 national seed not because, as has been the tradition in the Brian O’Connor era, its pitching, but rather, in spite of it.

A team ERA flirting with the six mark late in the season notwithstanding, UVA won 41 games in the 2024 regular season because the offense averaged 9.7 runs per game with a team OPS over 1.000.

It’s fitting, then, that with the bats silenced in the NCAA Tournament opener on Friday with Ivy League champ Penn – Virginia was 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position – it was the arms that keyed the Cavaliers to the 4-2 win.

“Really proud of our guys. It doesn’t matter how you win, you know, you just gotta, you have to find a way, and that was a total team effort,” O’Connor said after the W, in front of the large, raucous crowd of 5,802 on hand for the noon ET start.

Lots of folks playing hooky from work.

The offense came from Henry Godbout, who hit his eighth homer of the season, a three-run shot, in the second, with an Ethan Anderson RBI double in the seventh tacking on a much-needed insurance run late.

O’Connor got nine solid innings on the mound from two pitchers – Elon grad transfer Joe Savino, who didn’t see his first action in the 2024 season until April because of issues with his right elbow, and sophomore sidearmer Chase Hungate, who closed things out with three and a third innings of scoreless, one-hit relief.

First, to Savino (3-2, 3.18 ERA). He made his UVA debut on April 2 with an inning of work in a 4-0 win over ODU, finally working past the two-inning mark in his fourth start, a 4-0 win at Boston College on April 27.

Coming into Friday, he hadn’t gone past five innings or 83 pitches this season.

His Friday statline: five and two-thirds innings, 97 pitches, two runs on three hits and a walk, eight strikeouts.

“I can’t stop smiling,” said Savino, who was 5-1 with a 3.86 ERA in 22 relief appearances in 2023 at Elon, where, as it turns out, he never started a game.

“This place is amazing,” Savino said, after pitching, and winning, in the biggest game, to date, in his life. “The crowd, the atmosphere, you know, everything about it is amazing. Talking to Brian Edgington last year and just seeing it on TV as well, I mean, it’s amazing.”

Edgington is another former Elon pitcher who transferred to UVA for his final college season, and was the ace for a ‘Hoos squad that made it to the program’s sixth College World Series in 2023.

Edgington, now pitching in A ball in the Cincinnati Reds organization, helped recruit Savino to Virginia, though neither would have expected Savino to be in the starting rotation at NCAA Tournament time.

A run of injuries to O’Connor’s projected rotation has had him juggling his pitchers all year long as he has tried to figure out how to get through games.

“I’ve actually, you know, I’ve loved, I don’t, you don’t like that you don’t have everybody at your disposal, but I have loved the challenge of trying to figure it out, right,” O’Connor said. “That’s our job, is to put that, their one time, this is their one team, this year, and our job is to put them in the best possible position every day to try to have success. And I’m proud of what that group has done, that’s for sure. It’s easy for people to look back in history and say, Well, geez, they had this great pitching staff last year. OK, great, but that’s last year, right. You put your team in a position to give them a chance to win every day. And that’s what it’s about.”

Which is how it was that O’Connor has had to use a career reliever with a bad elbow as his #2 starter, and how it ended up that Hungate, whose fastball tops out in the 86-88 mph range, was in there to close things out.

Hungate has won seven games in relief this season, and his 48.0 innings pitched is second on the staff, which probably tells you as much about the job that O’Connor has had to do to try to get outs as anything else could.

Basically, there’s really nobody else out there. O’Connor moved last year’s closer, Jay Woolfolk, into the starting rotation at the beginning of the season, but the former UVA quarterback struggled there, and has not regained his form since being relegated to the pen – pitching to a 5.84 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in 24.2 innings out of the bullpen over the past two months.

The closer at the beginning of the 2024 season was Aiden Teel, but despite his six saves, Teel has pitched to a 7.88 ERA and 1.79 WHIP in his 24.0 innings this season.

Hungate may not have the electric stuff that Teel or Woolfolk has, but he gets outs, and that’s the bottom line.

For O’Connor, whose team will face Mississippi State, which walked off St. John’s, 5-2, in extras in Friday’s nightcap, on Saturday night, it was crucial that he was able to get through Game 1 with his staff as intact as it can be.

“That’s always in the back of your head when you’re thinking of managing a game, alright, well, we’ll take care of what’s in front of you, it takes what it takes, and we would have used whoever we needed to use to win today’s ballgame. But you’re also in the back of your mind that you’re in it to win it, and part of that is winning the first game, but it’s also knowing what you have in front of you as well. So to use just two pitchers, I mean, Chase was out there and was incredibly efficient to throw three and a third and just throw 31 or 33 pitches is impressive, so he’ll be ready to go whenever we need him again, it just gets you off to a great start,” 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].