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ISTVAN: Starting pitching the key for Virginia baseball in NCAA Tournament

Proven by a disappointing close to 2022, the Cavaliers will go only as far as their rotation takes them

<p>There's been no shortage of offensive production for the Cavaliers this season, but their postseason fate hinges on strong top to bottom pitching performances.</p>

There's been no shortage of offensive production for the Cavaliers this season, but their postseason fate hinges on strong top to bottom pitching performances.

Following an early exit from the ACC Tournament at the hands of North Carolina, the quickly approaching NCAA Tournament represents Virginia baseball’s last chance to get its hands on some hardware. Cavaliers fans may see parallels between the current outfit and the 2022 team that stumbled out of the big dance at NCAA Regionals, but they should rest assured that coach Brian O’Connor and company are well-equipped to avoid a second strike of lightning.

While the two teams are far from identical, Virginia’s 2023 campaign hasn’t failed to evoke a few feelings of déjà vu. The Cavaliers began the season on a tear, winning each of their first 14 games before falling to the Tar Heels March 11. A season prior, Virginia also began the season on a 14-game winning streak until Duke snapped it March 13, 2022.

Both teams made it to April with just two losses, creeping into the top five of the national rankings and earning consideration as potential championship contenders with the second half of the season getting underway. But around the same time, each O’Connor team encountered turbulence.

The Cavaliers stumbled in April this season, losing four of their five series in the ACC — including a sweep by unranked Notre Dame — on the way to a 5-9 conference record during that span. Virginia’s 2022 team suffered seven conference defeats in 14 games — including a sweep by Miami — as they plummeted down the ACC Coastal standings. 

While each squad’s struggles led them to fall outside of the top 10 nationally, their paths would diverge as the regular season neared its conclusion. Last season, the Cavaliers never found their groove again before postseason play began. Virginia won only five of their final nine games in the leadup to the ACC Tournament, which saw the Cavaliers defeated in back-to-back contests while being outscored 16-3 by their opponents.

But this season’s squad showed a level of resilience unmatched by the previous roster. The Cavaliers won nine consecutive games to close out the regular season, capturing an outright ACC Coastal Division Championship and skyrocketing themselves into contention for a host spot in NCAA Regionals. 

So, what’s been different about Virginia between the home stretches of 2022 and 2023? What has allowed O’Connor’s current group to excel during the time when his previous one found such difficulty? The analytics say it starts and ends with pitching. From recruiting potent new arms to increasing usage rates among starters, O’Connor has given the rotation a breath of fresh air that has greatly benefited the program as a whole. 

Junior left-hander Connelly Early, freshman right-hander Jack O’Connor and graduate student right-handers Brian Edgington and Nick Parker have all started at least 10 games for the Cavaliers in 2023. The quartet has brought a much-needed sense of stability to the mound for Virginia, combining to pitch over 52 percent of the Cavaliers’ innings this season.

The Cavaliers’ staff in 2022 was never a completely organized group, as the roster included only two players who started 10 or more games. Outside of Nate Savino and Brian Gursky, Virginia used spot starters like Devin Ortiz, sophomore Matthew Buchanan and junior Jake Berry.

That rotation hadn’t yet hit its stride by the latter half of the season because, well, it wasn’t really a consistent rotation. O’Connor and the Cavaliers certainly identified that as an issue, because the 2023 version of Virginia’s starting rotation boasts a wealth of depth. 

Breaking out of this year’s midseason slide heading into tournament time, the Cavaliers’ recent 10-game winning streak was a period in which the pitching staff allowed just 3.7 earned runs per game. Virginia’s final 10 games in 2022 — represented by a subpar 3-7 record — saw the Cavaliers allow a lofty average of 5.3 earned runs per game. The sample sizes may be small, but the differences in personnel are not. Virginia’s leg up in the pitching department from last season is largely due to a bolstered starting rotation. 

But it hasn’t just been about quantity. Virginia’s four-pronged starting pitching attack has been exceptional when called upon, posting a 3.82 earned run average and helping the Cavaliers to the seventh-lowest ERA in the NCAA. Even after Virginia’s tough run of games in April, it was the starting pitching that got the Cavaliers back on track. While the offense has been ever-present for Virginia, its starters have given them a few more chances to win games than a year prior.

Early tossed six shutout innings in Virginia’s 9-8 victory over James Madison May 3, and Edgington did the same in an important 8-3 win against Louisville May 14. O’Connor enjoyed a brief stint in the bullpen where he was lights out against both Radford and Georgia Tech, while Parker made two impressive starts against the Cardinals and the Yellow Jackets. The Cavaliers have been getting plenty of offensive production, but night in and night out, it’s been the pitching pushing them across the line.

Also contributing to an impressive Virginia season on the mound has been the control its pitchers have displayed. The Cavaliers have allowed only 181 walks this season, down significantly from 247 in 2022. Virginia’s 3.25 walks per game rank as the 11th fewest in the country, and for how successful its pitchers have been at preventing danger elsewhere, continued command around the plate will only serve to make the Cavaliers even more difficult to break down.

As Virginia hosts the NCAA regionals this weekend, the Cavaliers will be riding their starting rotation as far as it takes them. The offense, spearheaded by junior sluggers Jake Gelof and Kyle Teel, has been and will continue to show up for Virginia – but the Cavaliers’ chances at avoiding another early exit rely first and foremost on Early, Edgington, Parker and O’Connor. Should the unit rally as they did to close out the season, a successful postseason is within reach for Virginia.

As the old saying goes, defense wins championships.

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