Evan Blanco Delivers Virginia Victory To Open Super Regional

Virginia Cavaliers Evan Blanco Evan Blanco piled up 9 strikeouts as Virginia defeated Kansas State. ~ Photo by Kris Wright/TheSabre.com

On April 12, 2024, Evan Blanco became the Virginia baseball team’s weekend series, game one starter. Since that time, the Hoos have won 6 of 9 games with Blanco on the mound while he has posted 4 quality starts. For the season, the Hoos are 12-5 in his 17 starts, a .705 winning percentage.

When the time to begin the 2024 Charlottesville Super Regional on Friday arrived, that made it easy for Virginia coach Brian O’Connor to hand the ball to Blanco who had “earned” the right to take the hill.

“A pivotal part of this team was when we moved Evan Blanco to our Friday night starter,” O’Connor said. “That’s why I wanted him to start tonight because he had earned that opportunity.”

In that opener at Davenport Field, an eventual 7-4 UVA win, fans witnessed the growth and maturation of a talented young pitcher. On the second pitch of the game, Blanco made an out pitch when Kansas State speedy centerfielder Brendan Jones lofted a fly ball into shallow left center. The routine play turned sour when Bobby Whalen lost the ball in the bright sunny sky. Jones soared around and turned a lost fly ball into a leadoff triple.

Jones scored on the ensuing batter’s sacrifice hit to Henry Godbout. Still, a 3- or 4-run inning didn’t happen and that’s a credit to the pitcher and the defense. Blanco’s response to the lost fly ball was to bear down and strike out the final two hitters to limit the total to 1 run.

Asked how he thought his young lefty managed the situation, O’Connor said, “I think he responded like a winner.”

The key was not letting that potential run distract him from getting 3 outs and getting out of frame.

“Just concede the run,” O’Connor explained. “Don’t try and pitch out of a run on third base and no outs, get the next guy in front of you and manage that inning.”

Blanco did just that and O’Connor noted it was that kind of mature approach that allowed the Hoos to come away with a game one victory.

“Your job as a starter, even if you fall behind is to go out there to keep your team in the ball game,” said O’Connor. “He kept us in the game enough and he knows what our offensive capability is and that if he goes out there, even after giving up runs, that if he manages innings and pitches deep into the ball game,” Virginia has a chance to win.

The sophomore hurler ran into more trouble in the third inning.

The nine-hole hitter Raphael Pelletier opened the frame with a single to right field, Jones reached for a second time after being hit by Blanco, and Jaden Parsons moved his teammates up 90 feet with a sacrifice bunt. Fayetteville Regional MVP Kaelen Culpepper’s scorching double plated Pelletier and Jones to put the Wildcats up 3-0 in the third.

Following Culpepper’s double, however, Blanco settled down for good. He retired 14 of the last 15 hitters he faced with 5 strikeouts.

“After [the double] I started locking in with two outs,” Blanco noted. “They strung a couple of hits together with two outs. Landing pitches, too. I found myself with two outs in the middle of the strike zone a little too much earlier in the game and focused in on hitting spots and dialing in with two strikes was key for me. I got more comfortable and a little more aggressive toward my target.”

Blanco held KSU in check allowing just a solo home run in the top of the seventh inning the rest of the way. O’Connor highlighted Blanco’s performance Friday night as an example of the growth and development he has seen this season from his front-line starter.

“Evan Blanco’s effort tonight was really special,” O’Connor affirmed.

“I’m not so sure what he went through tonight, giving up a few of those runs early, that he would have managed it the same way he did tonight [before becoming the weekend series starter,] added O’Connor. “That’s learned and it’s learned through experience.”

Blanco’s determination and resilience allowed the Hoos to complete their 23rd come-from-behind win in 2024, including 3 postseason victories.

O’Connor acknowledged the significance of Henry Godbout’s 3-run, game-winning blast but said, “I really feel that Evan Blanco’s outing to get us to the eighth inning was the difference in the ball game. He never left the game with it being out of reach and went out there and did his job and kept his team in the game. I’m sure he was very confident that our offensive ballclub would figure it out, which they did and made a nice adjustment.”

Godbout called it amazing to play defense behind a pitcher that continually pounds the strike zone. “Anytime a guy pounds the strike zone, you feel like you’re in the game the whole time. Playing behind Blanco is great,” he said.

Blanco finished 1 out shy of matching a career best with 7.0 innings pitched. His 9 strikeouts are the second-most delivered in a game this season and he has given pitching coach Drew Dickinson at least 6 innings of work in his last 4 starts. With the win Blanco improves to 8-3 on the season, with a 3.69 ERA over 92.2 innings pitched.

O’Connor mentioned that it was often difficult taking the ball away from Blanco.

“He’s a bulldog,” O’Connor said. “You have a hard time taking the ball away from him. Trust me, he wanted to go back out there in the eighth inning and that’s what you want. You want guys that believe in themselves so much that they are disappointed that you take the ball out of their hands. He’s earned that and he stepped up for this team tonight.”

Fortunately, after a season of ups and downs on the mound, it appears that the rotation may finally be set. The emergence of Joe Savino, who has gone 4+ innings in his last 5 starts, with 24.1 innings total and a 3-1 record has matched alongside Blanco. With Jay Woolfolk seemingly finding his groove after an electric NCAA Tournament start last week that saw him go 8.0 innings with 7 strikeouts, that’s a trio of starters to set the tone from the mound. Woolfolk is scheduled to start Saturday in game two.

“Our pitching has been fun,” said O’Connor. “Really. I’ve actually enjoyed all year the challenge of figuring it out. Who gives us the best option to start that game and who the best options are out of the bullpen? Sure, we’d all like it to be easy and straight-forward and right out in front of you but most of the time it doesn’t work that way.”

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