Things were at an all-time high for the Virginia Cavaliers’ baseball early on this season when the reigning College World Series participants entered the month of April at 23-2. Since then, the Hoos have played merely .500 ball, which included an 0-2 trip to Charlotte in the ACC tournament.
Despite dropping to a two seed in the NCAA Tournament, there is no denying that this squad is talented enough to return to Omaha. In a sense, the method by which they would get there would have to be vastly different than 2021. Last year’s team struggled early, picked up their play as the season progressed, and entered the postseason red hot. As we stand now, Virginia is on a downward trajectory.
But when push comes to shove, there will be a few factors that determine whether Brian O’Connor’s squad has what it takes.
Somebody — Preferably Multiple Pitchers — Step Into the “Ace” Role
Last year, Andrew Abbott was dominant throughout virtually the entire season. The other two days in the weekend during the regular season brought inconsistency, though. In the postseason, questions arose as to whether Virginia could sustain their pitching staff as the games in consecutive days piled up. It was Griff McGarry, who struggled to even stay in the rotation and carried an ERA above six, who ended up being the most valuable.
Looking at this year’s roster, second team All-ACC Brian Gursky has to be reliable, first and foremost. Without him at his best, UVA’s chances at making it out of the regionals are slim to none.
The question is, who else? In last year’s case, McGarry struggled to find the strike zone throughout his career, but always had potential to be dominant due to his velocity and movement. This year’s roster has a few candidates.
Nate Savino has often struggled with command but there have been multiple outings this year when he was untouchable. Devin Ortiz is the opposite type of pitcher. A position player by trade, he lives off of location and his wicked breaking ball. Considering Ortiz its 5-1 with a 2.03 ERA in nine appearances this year (five starts), it is difficult to believe his work on the mound is complete.
Come June, gone are the days in which relievers are asked to provide just three to four high-leverage outs. The best pitchers on the team are going to be asked to eat up as many innings as possible.
Stephen Schoch, who famously embraced this role with gutsy multi-inning performances in last year’s regionals, has moved on. The good news is that there is not a lack of depth on this Virginia pitching staff.
Brandon Neeck is clearly capable. His 5.2 scoreless innings in relief in which he struck out 16 Old Dominion batters indicates that. Neeck just has to make sure to keep the ball inside the park. True freshman Jay Woolfolk, has already had a “super-reliever” role, averaging well over an inning in 26 regular season appearances, and an ERA under three. Other candidates include Paul Kosanovich (4-0, 2.49 ERA) and Matthew Buchanen (3-1, 3.49 ERA) who have each been impressive in small volumes this year.
A Balanced Approach At the Plate
Virginia is very capable of scoring runs in bunches. And just like last year, a large part of the Wahoos’ success is due to approach. They had the lowest strikeout rate (17.8%) and the third highest walk rate (13.6%) in the conference in the regular season. However, the tide shifted a bit in the tournament when they struck out 30.9% of the time while walking at just a rate of 5.9%.
It is critical that Virginia resorts to their patient but protective approach that they have had for most of the season. Not only has it been the key to their success as a program but its importance amplifies in the postseason when pitchers are at a premium. Working the count forces an opponent to dig deeper into their bullpen.
Of course, any good hitting team is in attack mode when they get a favorable pitch. The slugging numbers are still there for UVA — who set a program record for home runs this season. However, intelligence at the plate has always been a staple for any Brian O’Connor team and will need to be for this lineup in June.
Altogether, the ‘Hoos are not incapable of making another run in this year’s NCAA tournament. It is simply a matter of whether the pieces fall together quickly.