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No. 9 Virginia cruises past Pittsburgh in weekend sweep

The Cavalier offense again proved a force to be reckoned with, scoring 36 total runs against the Panthers

<p>The most encouraging part of the weekend was the consistency and relative longevity of starters who took the pressure off of the offense and bullpen.</p>

The most encouraging part of the weekend was the consistency and relative longevity of starters who took the pressure off of the offense and bullpen.

After hosting Georgetown for a 15-6 midweek rout, No. 9 Virginia baseball headed north for a three-game weekend set against Pittsburgh at Charles L. Cost Field. The Panthers (11-11, 1-8 ACC) reside in the basement of the ACC Coastal standings, and the Cavaliers (21-4, 6-3 ACC) handled them with ease, outscoring them 36-8 on the weekend. 

The series represented the continuation of Virginia’s offensive trends — it now ranks third in the country in runs scored with 258 across 24 games. On the mound, the Cavaliers welcomed relative stability as all three starters lasted at least five innings, and the bullpen competently protected early leads.

Game 1 — Virginia 18, Pittsburgh 2

Virginia leapt out to an early lead in Friday’s opener just two batters in, as junior outfielder Anthony Stephan knocked an RBI double to drive in junior infielder Griff O’Ferrall. Freshman infielder Henry Ford brought around Stephan with a sacrifice fly to make the advantage 2-0 before the side was retired.

Sophomore right-handed pitcher Cullen McKay received the ball for Virginia who, despite a strong record, have desperately been looking for quality outings to complement its offensive firepower. McKay wobbled out of the gate, relenting a run and struggling with control early. However, he found his footing by recording three consecutive strikeouts to conclude the first with a score of 2-1.

From then on the Cavaliers were in the driver’s seat, totalling 18 runs on 19 hits in a complete blowout. Virginia batted around in the top of the second inning to plate five runs. The inning was highlighted by an RBI triple from graduate catcher Jacob Ference, who went on to knock solo home runs in the third and sixth innings. Alongside Ference, O’Ferrall was elite out of the leadoff spot, going 4-5 with two RBIs and three runs scored. Ford and sophomore outfielder Harrison Didawick added home runs of their own in the fifth and seventh innings respectively in an impressive day for the Cavaliers’ offense.

On the mound, McKay was steady, allowing another run in the second inning but finishing his outing with three scoreless frames. McKay’s final line included 5.0 innings, two earned runs on three hits and a career-high 10 strikeouts. Junior relievers Chase Hungate and Dean Kampschror managed the sixth and seventh efficiently, benefitting from double plays in each frame to bring the game to a premature run-rule conclusion.

Game 2 — Virginia 10, Pitt 4

After a scoreless top of the first inning, sophomore left-handed pitcher Evan Blanco came out to the mound for Virginia in game two. Looking sharp from the jump, Blanco shut out the top of the Panthers’ order with three consecutive strikeouts. The Cavaliers struck in the top of the second with another five-spot, again jump-started with a leadoff base hit from Ference. Following a slew of RBI knocks, Virginia led 5-0 after two innings.

Blanco continued to cruise through Pittsburgh’s lineup until the bottom of the third, where he allowed an RBI single but stranded runners on the corners. The Cavaliers again attacked in the top of the fifth, scoring off of an RBI single from freshman infielder Eric Becker and a defensive error by the Panthers. They would tack on another run in the top of the sixth to bring the score to 8-1.

However, in the bottom of the sixth, Pittsburgh’s lineup began to catch up to Blanco, driving in a pair of runs. Coach Brian O’Connor then made the call to the bullpen and brought in junior right-handed pitcher Jay Woolfolk. Woolfolk mitigated the damage in the sixth but imploded in the seventh, hitting two batters and allowing a run on a passed ball before exiting with the lead reduced to 8-4.

Virginia benefited from stacking runs early on and was able to stay comfortable despite the slight momentum shift. The Cavaliers drove in an additional two insurance runs in the top of the ninth, while graduate left-handed pitcher Angelo Tonas was stellar across the final three innings, allowing just two hits to seal a 10-4 victory. Blanco totaled a strong 5.2 innings — marred by an ugly sixth — allowing three earned runs on seven hits and recording six strikeouts.

Game 3 — Virginia 8, Pitt 2

With the series win secured, Virginia turned to sophomore right-handed pitcher Kevin Jaxel in search of a complete sweep for the weekend. The first two innings were quiet on both sides until Jaxel relented a solo home run in the bottom of the second — the first time the Cavaliers trailed in the series.

Virginia responded in no time, however, retaking the lead in the top of the third off of an RBI groundout from Stephan and a scorching RBI double from Ford. The Cavaliers tacked on two more runs in the top of the fourth inning to make it 4-1. Barring the allowed home run, Jaxel was sensational on the mound, pitching to contact and allowing the defense to make plays behind him for five innings of one-run play.

Pittsburgh was able to stave off the hot Virginia bats until Didawick stepped into the box in the top of the seventh, delivering a two-run shot to left field — his team-leading 11th home run this season. The Cavaliers pushed across two more runs in the top of the ninth, grabbing an 8-1 advantage.

Junior left-handed reliever Blake Barker followed Jaxel in the sixth inning, tossing 2.0 scoreless innings. Hungate arrived to close out the series, but ran into a bit of trouble in the bottom of the ninth, conceding a run before Tonas slammed the door shut on an 8-2 victory.

After the up-and-down theatrics of last weekend’s series victory over then-No. 7 Wake Forest, this weekend was a welcome relief to Cavalier fans. Virginia handily took care of business against a struggling Panthers squad, regularly filling and emptying the bases. However, the most encouraging part of the weekend was the consistency and relative longevity of starters who took the pressure off of the offense and bullpen — though the quality of competition should be considered before making long-term judgments about a turnaround from the pitching staff.

Virginia will get the chance to keep the ball rolling, as it travels to Durham, N.C. to face off against No. 11 Duke in a series that will reveal far more about the team’s progress on the mound. The series will be broadcast on ACCNX with the first pitch in Thursday’s game slated for 6 p.m.

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