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Virginia baseball aiming to return as stronger than ever in preparation for 2024

While Cavalier fans are enjoying the middle of fall sports season, Virginia baseball deserves plenty of offseason hype

<p>After a run to Omaha earlier this year, the Cavaliers are reloading in hopes of finishing the job in 2024.</p>

After a run to Omaha earlier this year, the Cavaliers are reloading in hopes of finishing the job in 2024.

Participating in the College World Series marks a successful season no matter the result in Omaha, Neb. However, Coach Brian O’Connor felt that being the first College World Series team to be eliminated meant falling short of expectations. 

“We just couldn’t get that one more big hit that we needed to win here in Omaha,” O’Connor said. “That said, it doesn’t diminish what this team accomplished.”

In 2024, the Cavaliers are going to look significantly different — and perhaps even better than last season. Losing two of the program’s all-time legends is bittersweet, but O’Connor has a talented crop of incoming recruits and transfer players to have his squad ready to compete for a national championship once again. 

Outfield

Despite losing Ethan O’Donnell to the MLB Draft, Virginia’s outfield is already looking like a strength for 2024. Junior Casey Saucke and sophomore Harrison Didawick are both poised for major breakout seasons, and the Cavaliers added graduate transfer Bobby Whalen from Indiana to potentially patrol centerfield. Saucke was originally recruited as an infielder and could actually end up starting at third base, but his outstanding outfield defense may have him staying in right field. The defensive alignment for Virginia will be interesting to watch. 

Outfield consistency was a bit of an issue for the Cavaliers last season, as they seldom had a full trio thriving all at once. O’Donnell became a major liability in the postseason with costly errors and a drop-off in production offensively while Saucke took roughly a third of the season to truly reach his potential in terms of batting average, and Didawick struggled mightily at the plate before becoming one of Virginia’s greatest postseason performers. Reaching the outfield’s full potential and maintaining it will be essential both offensively and defensively. 

Infield

Returning up front are stalwart junior infielders Ethan Anderson and Griff O’Ferrall. The dynamic duo each hit over .370 in 2023 and figure to be key leaders this upcoming spring. Also returning for the infield is sophomore infielder Henry Godbout, who performed admirably to the tune of a .286 batting average as a true freshman at second base. Like Saucke, Anderson could shift somewhere else — likely to catcher — which he did in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League this summer for the Harwich Mariners. Again, to be determined later.

Should Saucke stay in the outfield, third base is arguably the biggest question mark offensively for the Cavaliers. With Virginia home-run king Jake Gelof joining the Los Angeles Dodgers organization in the 2023 MLB Draft, there will be big shoes to fill at the position. Sophomore infielder Luke Hanson performed well in limited action all over the infield, hitting .356 in just 45 at-bats. He could very well earn the third base job outright. He could also slot in at shortstop while O’Ferrall shifts over to the hot corner. It will take a lot of moving around for O’Connor to find the best nine offensively as well as defensively. 

The vacancy at catcher will also be a major storyline in 2024, as consensus First Team All-American Kyle Teel will no longer be a major force behind the plate, having been drafted 14th overall by the Boston Red Sox. Fighting for the starting spot are graduate student transfer Jacob Ference along with freshmen Mark Gialluisi and Henry Ford. Ference — joining the Cavaliers with three seasons of experience at DIII Salisbury — could be the frontrunner over Gialluisi and Ford, whom Virginia could use in a reserve role or redshirt and save for 2025. Either of the newcomers or even Anderson would be strong options, but replacing Teel is a difficult task regardless. 

Pitching

While a lot of change is certain to occur, there is significant reason for optimism with the pitching staff despite the fact that Brian Edgington, Nick Parker and Connelly Early are all out to the pros. Sophomore pitcher Jack O'Connor returns as the likely ace of the starters after earning Freshman All-American honors from Perfect Game USA and Baseball America. O’Connor, along with graduate student pitcher Joe Savino — who claims no relation to former Virginia star Nate Savino — are the top weekend hurlers. Sophomore pitchers Cullen McKay and Bradley Hodges also return with valuable College World Series innings in tow and will compete for the third starter spot. Owen Coady — a graduate student transfer pitcher from Penn —  is also joining with the opportunity to fight for a starting spot or long reliever role. A lot of unfamiliar pieces will be tossing crucial innings for the Cavaliers, but there is reason for optimism. O’Connor is one of the best coaches in the country and has brought Virginia to an unprecedented winning culture. 

The pitching staff may be the most difficult to project, but the top arm should be Jack O’Connor. Savino could find himself as the No. 2, with Coady as the third starter and either Hodges or McKay earning the regular season fourth starter spot. McKay’s 2023 ERA of 3.78 slightly tops Savino’s 3.86 mark, but Savino pitched over 35 innings more than McKay and has experience as a redshirt junior. 

A plethora of freshmen also look promising, as five arms were ranked as top eight recruits at their position by Perfect Game — including Tommy Roldan, the top ranked left-handed pitcher from the state of Maryland. The influx of talent could fuel a formidable bullpen for Virginia in 2024 and beyond. 

As for the rotation, it would look awfully similar to the 2023 arms. O’Connor and Edgington are skilled right-handers with good command, while Savino and Parker both rack up a ton of strikeouts with high intensity. Like Early, Coady is a southpaw with MLB starter potential — he just needs to limit walks. The bullpen should see a significant upgrade regardless of how the starting rotation works out. Junior closer Jay Woolfolk is now the unquestioned option for the ninth inning with Jake Berry departing for the pros. Hodges alongside junior Chase Hungate and sophomore Kevin Jaxel form a formidable trio in the middle innings. Sophomore utility player Aidan Teel — the younger brother of Red Sox-bound Kyle Teel — is the fascinating wild card of the whole roster. He could stick as a right-handed pitcher for the bullpen, as he was the top right-handed pitching prospect for the 2022 high school class in New Jersey. Teel could also find himself playing possibly any position in the outfield.

Before the official roster is set, the Cavaliers already boast an impressive group. A lineup of O’Ferrall leading off at shortstop followed by junior infielder Anthony Stephan at designated hitter and Saucke at third base would be perfect for Anderson to drive in runs as the cleanup batter. Didawick in left field and Godbout at second base could be promising as the fifth and sixth hitters, followed by Ference catching and hitting seventh. Hanson should find a spot somewhere, possibly at right field should Saucke switch to the infield. Whalen could round out the lineup as the ninth hitter, completing a fearsome squad.

With storylines aplenty and Omaha in their sights, the 2024 Cavaliers are well worth watching — even in October. A return to Omaha with more favorable results could be within reach if O’Connor is able to align the pieces into the best unit. Until then, Virginia baseball will present the Orange & Blue World Series, a set of nine intrasquad exhibition games. The team then travels to Maryland Oct. 15 and hosts East Carolina Oct. 22. More information can be found on the Virginia Sports website

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