Virginia Baseball Notes: It Takes What It Takes

Virginia Cavaliers Eric Becker Virginia freshman Eric Becker starts to run on an RBI double with 2 outs. ~ Photo by Kris Wright/TheSabre.com

All season long, the Virginia baseball team launched home run after home run over the wall. So often, in fact, that the Hoos absolutely smashed the program’s single season record with 116 home runs.

Against Kansas State in the Super Regional, however, the Hoos went yard just twice. Henry Godbout connected on a key shot in Game 1 with what proved to be a game-winning swing, while Casey Saucke got UVA on the board first with a first inning bomb in Game 2. And those were not really the most likely candidates either. Godbout had 7 homers all season, while Saucke’s connection was his first in 15 NCAA Tournament games. In fairness, of course, Saucke does have 14 this season.

Virginia coach Brian O’Connor credited KSU for some of the reduced home run production this weekend. He said that left-handed starter Owen Boerema gave the Cavaliers some trouble on Friday night as he made it hard to square up many balls with his performance, but the hosts did enough to get to the bull pen and break through for a 7-4 win. He also pointed out reliever Tyson Neighbors as a talented player in the nation this year.

“They were pretty unpredictable as a pitching staff so when you’re unpredictable, it’s a little bit more difficult and challenging,” O’Connor said. ”They’ve got good arms. The Neighbors kid that came in and threw a couple of innings, that guy’s one of the top relievers in college baseball and he’s a pretty talented young man. Our guys’ approach was just to grind it out.”

After this weekend, the Wahoos have just 3 home runs in their five NCAA Tournament games thus far. So while this year’s team broke the school record by 33 and counting, it did not rely on purely power to earn a 7th trip to the College World Series. Instead, UVA’s players got the ball in play in other ways.

In the two games, the Cavaliers had 22 hits with 9 on Friday and 13 on Saturday. Those 22 hits broke down as 15 singles, 4 doubles, 2 home runs, and 1 triple. As one of three teams nationally with 700+ hits this season (now 737) entering the Super Regionals and an offense that ranks in the top 10 in eight categories, it’s not necessarily surprising that the bats found a way. It still proved to be an important part of the Super sweep, though.

“It comes down to it takes what it takes,” O’Connor said. “There’s a great book out there by a guy by the name of Trevor Moawad that since passed away – the foreword in the book was written by Russell Wilson – and I just really believe in the concept that you might not hit home runs, but whatever it takes, that’s what it takes. Last two weekends, great pitching, great defense, and timely hitting, and guys picking each other up and just doing enough.”

Virginia With Two Outs

Part of the team’s hitting prowess this season has been based on the ability to come through with 2 outs. That remained true against Kansas State as Virginia scored 15 of 17 runs in the two-game series with 2 outs.

In Saturday’s clinching win, all 10 runs in a 10-4 victory came in that fashion. In the first inning, 2 runs came from Saucke’s blast and an RBI single from Harrison Didawick. In the fifth inning, Henry Ford’s single with the bases loaded scored 2 runs. In the eighth inning, Godbout drew a 2-out walk and Eric Becker followed with an RBI double.

Finally, in the ninth inning, Jacob Ference tripled to bring home 2 runs and give the team some breathing room after leading 5-4 through eight. Luke Hanson pinch hit later in the frame with the bases loaded and seared a shot down the left field line to add the final 3 runs to the tally.

The Hoos went 10-25 (.400) at the plate with 2 outs against Kansas State.

“We have scored a ton of runs with two outs this year, two outs nobody on,” O’Connor said. ”That’s what I spoke about earlier, the relentlessness of this team. I think it’s the absolute best word to describe this team. They just don’t stop and they believe in each other. They believe that they can do anything and what a great quality to have. I wouldn’t say it’s anything special that we do offensively. When you do what we do with two outs, that speaks to the fiber of who they are as men and they’re just not going to give anything away. That’ll help them for the rest of this year and it’ll help them candidly for the rest of their lives.”

No Regrets

For the second straight weekend at Disharoon Park, Jay Woolfolk closed out a series as the starting pitcher.

In the NCAA Tournament Regional for Game 3, Woolfolk posted career-high 7 strikeouts in a career-best 8.1 innings pitched. With an electric crowd urging him on, he helped UVA get that win against Mississippi State, 9-2. On Saturday against Kansas State, he didn’t have the same juice but he matched those 7 strikeouts in 6.1 innings pitched.

It took a big decision last summer and a circuitous route this season to get to those moments. Woolfolk came to UVA as a two-sport athlete and was considered to be in the competition to start at quarterback on the football team entering the 2023 season. After playing with USA Baseball in the summer of 2023, however, he decided to give up football and focus solely on pitching. That choice led to expectations of a major breakout year and he projected as a weekend starter, a role he opened the season in for the Wahoos. Following four games and shaky starts, however, he flipped back to the bullpen before returning to a starting role in June. And those two starts were obviously big-time outings in huge postseason moments.

“Sitting here right now, I’m glad I made that decision. I think it was the right decision,” Woolfolk said. ”I kind of made that decision off of having no regrets for it. So I guess y’all can say this is the right decision – we’re standing here right now [going to Omaha].”

Virginia Relievers

The Cavaliers got strong showings from the bullpen this weekend too.

On Friday night, Angelo Tonas went 1.1 innings and allowed 0 runs on 0 hits and 0 walks. Matt Augustin followed to get the final 2 outs, which included a strikeout.

Saturday afternoon, Tonas came in again and went 0.2 innings where he allowed only 1 run (a solo homer). Before that hit sailed over the wall, Tonas had shut down a potentially tricky situation in the seventh inning when he inherited a runner at second base with 1 out in a 4-3 game. He got back-to-back pop-outs to exit the inning.

Finally, Chase Hungate came in for 2.0 innings to retire six straight batters and close out the Super Regional. He allowed 0 runs on 0 hits with a strikeout, which ended the game and set off a celebration for the Cavaliers. Hungate has pitched 6.1 innings of scoreless relief this postseason.

“Chase Hungate has done the job for our team all year long,” O’Connor said. ”He’s been amazing. He’s had a heck of a year.”

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