Virginia baseball coach Brian O’Connor offered a checklist of sorts earlier this week for what it would take to win games in the NCAA Tournament. His team clicked off all those boxes against Coastal Carolina on Friday night to win 7-2 in the Greenville Regional at East Carolina.
After two rough outings at the ACC Tournament last week, the Hoos were happy to get back on track for the first night of Regional play.
Friday night’s game followed O’Connor’s prescription almost perfectly. He said the team needed quality starts from pitchers, good defense, opportunistic hitting, and a little bit of good fortune to get wins at this time of year. Outside of a shaky second inning that saw the Chanticleers take a 2-0 lead on their only runs of the night, that’s what the Hoos delivered.
“I’ll just start off as saying I’m really proud of our guys,” O’Connor said in a news release. “Certainly the early part of the game did not go as we scripted. We didn’t handle the ball real well on the infield, but just proud of how guys bounced back. This time of the year, some crazy things can happen, and you’ve got to be able to adjust within a game and handle the emotion of the game that it’ll bring, and we did that.”
Virginia starting pitcher Nate Savino set the tone out of the gates with a 1-2-3 inning that featured two groundouts and a strikeout. He finished his outing after 6.1 innings of work with 4 strikeouts, 2 walks, and 5 hits allowed. The win improved his season mark to 6-6.
The quality start was nearly derailed in that aforementioned second inning. After a one-out walk, the defense behind Savino stumbled with two consecutive throwing errors from Jake Gelof and Justin Rubin that helped create that early 2-0 deficit. Savino allowed a hit in the third, a hit in the fourth, and a walk in the fifth but left each inning unscathed. He picked off the runner between second and third base later in the fifth after he issued that walk.
Savino’s night ended in the seventh when Coastal made its biggest threat at a comeback. The Chanticleers put together back-to-back one-out hits and Virginia brought in Jay Woolfolk from the bullpen. He got a strikeout followed by a walk to load the bases, but a fielder’s choice out ended the threat.
The next checkbox came on defense. It didn’t look promising after the early errors, but UVA settled in and several key plays kept CC off the scoreboard as a result. The eye-catching moments came from Gelof, Alex Tappen, and Casey Saucke. Gelof made an impressive stop to get that fielder’s choice out in the seventh when trouble was brewing with the bases loaded. He dove to his left to keep the ball out of the hole and then jumped up to run touch third base for the force out.
Tappen made two diving catches in left field to record outs. The second one of those came in the eight inning with runners on first and third as Woolfolk again worked out of some trouble. That one kept a fast-sinking ball off the turf and led to an emotional response from Tappen, who sprung up shouting.
Earlier in that eighth inning, right fielder Casey Saucke played a hard line drive perfectly off the wall to hold that runner at third base initially. He also made an eye-popping play by reaching over the the fence to get a foul ball out in the third. Another nice defensive play featured Rubin quickly covering first on a sacrifice bunt attempt that nearly found a hole in the fifth. Throw in Matt Wyatt’s ninth inning work on the mound too just for good measure – he struck out all three batters on 11 pitches.
“The guy sitting to my left, Nate Savino, thought was terrific,” O’Connor said. “He completely pounded the bottom of the zone, got a lot of ground balls. When he’s his best, the fastball velocity is good and he’s at the bottom of the zone getting a lot of ground balls, and he was terrific tonight. When you play in this tournament, it certainly helps when you get guys that can pitch past the fifth inning, because it takes a lot. It takes a huge effort to advance out of this and go on to next weekend, and he was outstanding tonight, as were Jay Woolfolk and Matt Wyatt.”
Trailing 2-0 early, however, meant the Cavaliers needed the other two checkboxes – timely hits and some good fortune – to make a comeback. They got both in the third and the fifth.
In the third inning, Rubin and Tappen notched singles around a Griff O’Ferrall walk. With the bases loaded, Virginia needed to find a way to get some runs out of it. Gelof got an RBI on a fielder’s choice that left runners on the corners. There were the first moments of good fortune because Tappen’s hit was an infield single at the short stop and Gelof’s FC only produced one out. A double play ball in either case could have prevented a multi-run inning.
After a Devin Ortiz out, Kyle Teel came through with a double to left center that brought home two runs with two outs. Saucke followed with an RBI single to plate Teel. UVA left the inning with a 4-2 lead.
The Hoos got insurance runs in the fifth. Tappen led off with a double and scored when Gelof blooped a single into center field. That too was an important moment of fortune – due to Coastal’s positioning on the play, that ball dropped into an empty spot instead of into a glove. After an out, Teel reached courtesy of an error at first base as Coastal bobbled the catch. Saucke rose to the moment again with a double to bring in a run and Teel moved around to third. Ethan Anderson provided the key hit this time with a single that troubled the third baseman and scored Teel. That inning gave UVA the eventual 7-2 final margin.
Statistically, that all shook out like this. Tappen went 2-4 with a run scored. Gelof finished 3-4 with 2 RBIs and 2 runs scored. He’s now at 76 RBIs on the season, just one behind the single season record held by Pavin Smith. Saucke went 2-4 with 2 RBIs and Anderson went 2-4 with 1 RBI. Teel finished 1-4 with 2 RBIs and 2 runs scored as well. Virginia had 11 hits as a team. Coastal Carolina starter Reid VanScoter took the loss after allowing 6 earned runs on 9 hits
“Certainly, offensively our runs came in two innings where we just were opportunistic,” O’Connor said. “We knew Coastal’s starter was very, very good, we watched a ton of film on him, and to be the pitcher of the year in the Sun Belt. Looking at his stat sheet coming in, the guy had only given up two home runs the whole year. That’s impressive. So we knew we were in for a fight. And I’m just proud of our guys. They got big two-strike hits, a few two-out hits. Tapp over here made two outstanding diving plays in left field. Those were big, big moments in the game and to kind of stop momentum for them. So excited about our effort tonight and looking forward to tomorrow night.”
The Cavaliers advance into the winner’s bracket of the double elimination format. They face host East Carolina on Saturday night at 7 p.m.