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No. 7 Virginia baseball’s road to Omaha

Recapping the regular season and playoff run that saw the Cavaliers earn their sixth overall berth to the College World Series

<p>Coach Brian O'Connor made it clear Sunday afternoon that Omaha is a step towards a larger goal for Virginia baseball as it will have a chance to compete for its second-ever national championship.&nbsp;</p>

Coach Brian O'Connor made it clear Sunday afternoon that Omaha is a step towards a larger goal for Virginia baseball as it will have a chance to compete for its second-ever national championship. 

No. 7 Virginia baseball clinched a berth to the College World Series over the weekend, marking its sixth appearance in Omaha, Neb. in program history. While the Cavaliers (50-13, 19-11 ACC) dominated the competition for most of the season, the path to compete for a national championship was not always certain. What at one point looked like a disappointing repeat of the 2022 season where Virginia could not overcome late season struggles and fell in the Regional round turned into exhilaration at Disharoon Park Sunday afternoon.

Regular Season

Virginia started the season scorching hot, winning 14 straight before finally falling to then-No. 14 North Carolina. Though the Cavaliers entered the season ranked 19th overall, a 19-2 opening month catapulted them up to No. 8. While the team demonstrated fine skill on the mound, early season success could be attributed to one of the top offenses in the nation, highlighted by juniors third baseman Jake Gelof and catcher Kyle Teel. The potent duo hitting third and fourth spelled trouble for the majority of Virginia’s opponents, as the Cavaliers frequently scored double digit runs in their victories. 

Virginia peaked in the season standings at No. 5 before running into trouble in conference matchups. Surprisingly, the Cavaliers fell 1-2 in a rivalry series against unranked Virginia Tech for its first conference series loss. While they were able to temporarily right the ship, another uncharacteristic in-conference series loss in mid-April against unranked Pitt sounded the alarm bells for Virginia fans. The Cavaliers would drop three straight conference series, starting with the Panthers before falling to Notre Dame and Duke. In the latter two series, Virginia gave up 10 or more runs four times in six games, sliding all the way from No. 5 to No. 21. 

Fortunately, Coach Brian O’Connor seemed to make the proper adjustments behind the scenes to stop the skid. The Cavaliers regained their mojo, closing out the season with nine consecutive wins and two consecutive in-conference sweeps over Louisville and Georgia Tech in which the bats roared back to life and the pitchers limited mistakes. With the sweep over Georgia Tech, Virginia secured the regular season ACC Coastal title, and the No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament.

Though the Cavaliers opened the ACC Tournament with a blowout victory over Georgia Tech, they fell in similar blowout fashion to North Carolina in the next game. Knocked from the conference tournament, Virginia would have to wait and see how the NCAA evaluated its season as a whole to know their postseason fate. 

Regionals

Virginia closed the season as a No. 7 seed, meaning Charlottesville would play host to the Regional round of the NCAA College Baseball Championship— and the Super Regional, should the Cavaliers advance. Virginia hosted a Regional pool consisting of Army, Oklahoma and East Carolina. The Pirates had a phenomenal season in their own right, and Virginia would need to play its best baseball to survive and advance.

The tone was set in the opening matchup against Army. In a 15-1 blowout, graduate student pitcher Brian Edgington pitched five complete innings of perfect baseball, striking out four. Meanwhile, sophomore first baseman Ethan Anderson smacked a home run as part of a six-run first inning that placed the game out of reach early on. It was a statement victory to open up a successful playoff run. 

Next came a face-off with East Carolina, which played out much differently. The Cavaliers were limited by an elite pitching performance by the Pirates. Luckily, Virginia had a top performance of its own from graduate student pitcher Nick Parker who went seven strong innings, striking out five while allowing just one earned run. The Cavaliers had to fight hard, but clutch RBI knocks from Teel and later in the game from Anderson were the difference in a 2-1 ballgame. Junior reliever Jake Berry pitched the final two innings, closing out the game in dominant fashion.

To advance to the Super Regionals, Virginia needed one more win over East Carolina, who defeated Oklahoma to stay alive and earn a rematch. After one inning, the score was knotted 1-1. Junior pitcher Connelly Early was on the bump for the Cavaliers, tossing perhaps his finest game of the season with 10 strikeouts and allowing just two earned runs in 6.1 innings of work. Though Virginia was down 2-1 heading into the seventh inning, a three-run bomb from junior centerfielder Ethan O’Donnell lit Disharoon Park up to make the score 4-2. The Cavaliers wouldn’t trail again, and on the back of outstanding starting pitching and clutch hitting they secured a Super Regional berth as hosts.

Super Regionals

Virginia would next host Duke in a three game series with a trip to Omaha on the line. The Blue Devils were an opponent who had given the Cavaliers trouble in the midst of their regular season slide, setting up a dramatic make-or-break series. 

In Game One, Duke leapt out to an early lead on a two-run home run. Parker started for Virginia and settled in after the initial trouble. The Cavaliers rallied back, and clutch hitting from Gelof and Teel gave them a 4-3 lead heading into the top of the eighth. The lead would not hold as sophomore pitcher Jay Woolfolk conceded two runs and earned his first career loss. In the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two runners on, Gelof stepped to the plate looking to avoid an opening game loss. He ripped a ball to left center, falling inches short of a miracle walk-off home run as the ball fell into the jumping defender's glove.

Down but not out, the Cavaliers authoritatively knotted up the series in Game Two, behind a powerful offensive performance. It was the Jake Gelof show at Disharoon Park, as he went 3-5 with four RBI, breaking a number of Virginia offensive records including the single season home run record and career RBI record. Early was similarly dominant on the mound, pitching seven strong innings with eight strikeouts. With a final score of 14-4, it would come down to Game Three to determine who would advance to the College World Series.

It was the perfect fusion of outstanding pitching and overpowering offense for the Cavaliers, as a five-run second inning grew the sold out crowd’s confidence in Virginia. Whenever the Blue Devils threatened, the Cavaliers responded with force. Home runs from Anderson and sophomore hitter Anthony Stephan powered Virginia to 12 total runs. Meanwhile, Edgington went the distance in a 114-pitch complete game in which he struck out 11 and allowed just two runs. The Cavaliers dogpiled the mound after he secured the final out, and officially punched their ticket to Omaha. 

“For a lot of teams, Omaha’s the goal,” O’Connor said. “A lot of teams have it on their hats, T-shirts, they say it in the huddle. Certainly that’s a goal of ours. But I’ve learned over our trips there that you’re not satisfied with just being in Omaha. It’s about an opportunity to compete, eight teams competing for a national championship, and that’s what these guys’ focus will be when we go out there.”

Virginia will next face Florida in the first round of the College World Series in Omaha Friday night, with the first pitch set for 7 p.m.

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