No. 7 Virginia flew into Omaha with its eyes set on winning their second National Championship in program history. Confidence was high following a sweep through the regionals and a performance in the Super Regionals in which it outscored Duke by 19 runs. The starting pitching, which had been a question mark for the Cavaliers (50-15, 19-11 ACC) had been nearly perfect, and thus Virginia looked as if it lacked any holes entering the eight-team tournament. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, many of the bats went cold and late-inning pitching proved costly, leading to their elimination from this year’s College World Series.
Game 1 – Virginia 5, Florida 6
Virginia began the tournament matched up against No. 2 Florida who were coming in red-hot after a two-game sweep in the Super Regionals against No. 15 South Carolina. Coach Brian O’Connor opted to start graduate student Nick Parker against the star-studded Gator (52-15, 20-10 SEC) lineup.
Parker started off the game strong, getting sophomore infielder Jac Caglianone, a golden spikes finalist, and junior infielder Josh Rivera, an MLB draft hopeful, to fly out, securing a scoreless bottom of the first. However, he ran into some trouble in the second when junior infielder Colby Halter drove in the first run of the game on a single to left field. The Cavaliers were down early.
For the first six innings of the game, the Virginia bats could not get anything going. They faced a tough competitor on the mound in junior pitcher Brandon Sproat, the No. 79 MLB draft prospect. Outside of a first-inning single from sophomore infielder Griff O’Ferrall and a fourth inning double from sophomore infielder Ethan Anderson, the Cavaliers were held scoreless through six innings.
Luckily for them, Nick Parker kept them in the game with an outstanding performance on the mound. Through six innings of work, Parker limited the Florida offense to just one run on four hits. Although he only struck out one batter, his defense played well behind him, keeping the game within one run.
For the Virginia offense, the seventh inning was a major turning point as the bats started to show up. Anderson started the top half of the inning with a walk and was moved to third following a single from sophomore infielder Casey Saucke. Infielder Anthony Stephan tied up the game with a ground ball to third base which scored Anderson.
Three batters later, O’Ferrall came up clutch with a two-out double to left field which plated two runs, giving the Cavaliers their first lead of the ballgame. They weren’t done, however, as junior outfielder Ethan O’Donnell singled in another run as the Cavaliers took a commanding 4-1 lead.
Parker’s night was done, and as the bullpen took over, the lead quickly began to shrink. Following a walk and a double, freshman pitcher Jack O’Connor gave up a run-scoring groundball to freshman infielder Cade Kurland. After just a third of an inning pitched, O’Connor was replaced by junior pitcher Jake Berry, the reliever that Coach O’Connor trusted the most to get the big outs. He escaped the seventh without allowing another run and entering the 8th, Virginia was up 4-2.
After a quick top half of the inning, Berry returned to the mound and swiftly gave up a home run to senior catcher BT Riopelle, making it a one-run game. Luckily, he was able to retire the next three batters in order to keep the lead heading into the last inning.
The Cavaliers needed insurance, and that’s what they got from freshman outfielder Harrison Didawick, who tripled to deep right field. Saucke scored on the play, giving Virginia a 5-3 lead.
As the bottom of the ninth inning began, many were surprised to see Berry return to the mound. Similarly to the 8th inning, Berry quickly gave up a leadoff home run to sophomore outfielder Ty Evans, cutting the lead in half. Although sophomore pitcher Jay Woolfolk was warming in the bullpen, Coach O’Connor opted to stick with Berry. Two batters later, junior outfielder Wyatt Langford took Berry deep for the longest home run in College World Series park history.
Instead of opting for Woolfolk, O’Connor again decided to stick with Berry who proceeded to give up a single, walk, and hit-by-pitch, loading the bases with just one out. Then, O’Connor made the decision to change pitchers. With the bases loaded, there was little Woolfolk could do, and Florida walked it off with a sacrifice fly to center field, placing Virginia in the losers bracket.
“I have zero regret,” O’Connor said after the game.
Game 2 – Virginia 3, TCU 4
Following Friday night’s loss, the Cavaliers faced elimination against TCU. The Horned Frogs (44-23, 13-11 Big 12) had won 17 of their last 19 games. Junior pitcher Connelly Early got the starting nod after commanding performances against East Carolina and Duke.
Early ran into some trouble in the top of the first when junior outfielder Elijah Nunez led off the game with a double to left field. After a single that moved him to third, junior infielder Cole Fontenelle plated Nunez with a sacrifice fly, putting Virginia behind for the second-straight game.
The Cavaliers quickly responded however, as O’Ferrall matched Nunez with a leadoff double of his own. Two batters later, junior infielder Jake Gelof grounded into a fielder’s choice that scored O’Ferrall, tying the game.
In the top of the third, Early gave up consecutive hits to place runners on second and third. This allowed for Fontenelle to pick up his second RBI of the day with a ground ball to first base. These two runs were all that Early would give up in his five innings of work.
With it being an elimination game, all hands were on deck, which meant graduate student pitcher Brian Edgington was called in from the bullpen to start the sixth. After giving up a single and a walk, Edgington allowed another single to Nunez which plated a run, giving TCU a 3-1 lead.
Virginia refused to give up and in the bottom of the 7th, Anderson went opposite field for his 15th home run of the season to cut the lead in half. However, the Horned Frogs struck right back in the next inning with a run of their own, coming off a double from graduate student outfielder Austin Davis.
In the bottom of the 8th, following a base hit and stolen base from Didawick, O’Donnell plated him when he grounded out to shortstop. Unfortunately that was all the Cavaliers could muster, and they entered the ninth down a run.
After freshman pitcher Bradley Hodges gave up a base hit to start the 9th, Woolfolk was called in and he immediately shut the door and retired both of the batters he faced.
To start the bottom half of the 9th, junior catcher Kyle Teel struck out. Usually Virginia’s best hitter, Teel was unable to record a hit in Omaha. With two outs, Saucke singled and advanced to second base on an error prolonging the game, but the next batter, Stephan struck out swinging, ending the Cavalier’s season.
“Baseball’s a hard game,” Teel said. “You’re going to go through times and periods of struggles, and it’s always about bouncing back. But unfortunately we were going through that time these last couple games.”
Although this weekend was a disappointing end to its season, the Virginia baseball team should be proud of the success they saw this season. Its .335 team batting average ranked No. 1 nationally and they fielded three All-Americans, seven All-ACC players, and the ACC Player of the Year in Teel.
“Coach O’Connor runs this program phenomenally. Everyone is held to a high standard, and that’s why the University of Virginia is here so often,” Teel said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the Virginia Cavaliers will be back here, and they’ll be back here to win it.”