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Pitching will prevent Virginia baseball from climbing the mountaintop

While the bats have stayed hot for the Cavaliers, the arms have been shaky at best

<p>The Cavaliers are pitching to a 5.87 earned run average through 21 games this season, a significant uptick from the 3.81 earned run average they posted in 2023.</p>

The Cavaliers are pitching to a 5.87 earned run average through 21 games this season, a significant uptick from the 3.81 earned run average they posted in 2023.

Already 21 games into the 2024 season, Virginia baseball has racked up a significant sample size of contests to analyze. Having jumped out to a 9-0 start and then continuing to win big games, one might think that the No. 14 Cavaliers (17-4, 3-3 ACC) are in a great spot to make a run for both the ACC Championship and a return trip to Omaha, Neb. for the College Baseball World Series. While that might be the case, Virginia’s pitching woes will make those potential accomplishments a lot harder to come by. 

Despite impressive offense throughout the season, Virginia’s pitching has been subpar at best in all aspects. The Cavaliers are 54th in strikeouts per nine innings, 146th in team earned run average, 194th in walks allowed per nine innings and 206th in hits allowed per nine innings. For a team ranked 14th in the country with Omaha desires, these stats are unacceptable. 

But where are these pitching problems coming from? A large part of the problem is experience. Only one of Virginia’s four main starters from the 2023 team returned this year, and that is sophomore pitcher Jack O’Connor. The sophomore was supposed to be the ace of the pitching staff this year, but even he has struggled mightily so far. In 2023, he posted a 3.86 ERA and allowed just a .247 batting average, but those numbers have risen to 7.50 and .325 this season, respectively. It appears as if the spark he had his freshman year has fizzled out for now, which has hindered the experience of the Cavaliers’ rotation. 

Other critical pitchers have yet to throw a ton of innings in their career, as no 2024 returnee tossed more than 35 innings in the 2023 campaign. This means that growing pains and rookie mistakes are bound to occur, which will inevitably lead to rough performances during games. 

Another likely cause of struggle for the Cavaliers’ pitching staff is the lack of depth. Going into the season, Virginia was set on a weekend rotation of O’Connor, sophomore pitcher Evan Blanco and junior pitcher Jay Woolfolk. However, this rotation quickly shifted when O’Connor had disappointing starts against Hofstra and Iowa. He moved to the bullpen, and sophomore pitcher Cullen McKay took his role as a starter.

Woolfolk has also failed to display great consistency, further shaking up the original rotation and providing the feel that Blanco and McKay are the only starters who get the job done on the mound. The Cavaliers will need to find a true third starting pitcher if they want to be a real contender in the ACC and on the national stage, but they have yet to find three consistent arms on their staff. 

The next big issue for the Virginia pitching staff is their relief pitchers. The Cavaliers have blown numerous leads this year, including multiple rough performances against Miami in which they blew a four-run and a nine-run lead to the Hurricanes in back-to-back games. Virginia has tried to trust sophomore pitcher Kevin Jaxel and junior pitcher Blake Barker, but both have seen more struggle than success — Jaxel and Barker each have ERAs over eight so far this season. 

The only semi-trusty arms in the bullpen for the Cavaliers have been junior pitcher Chase Hungate and sophomore pitcher Aidan Teel, but even they have had their fair share of bad outings. Teel gave up a grand slam at a critical point in the second game of the series with Miami, and Hungate is still allowing a .275 average against him. Virginia has yet to find consistency in the bullpen, and it is guaranteed to cost them games in a tough conference like the ACC.

Teams that go on to make the College Baseball World Series, and especially those who win it, are dominant on both sides of the mound. Last year’s winners, Louisiana State, had the Golden Spikes winner — given yearly to the best amateur baseball player in the country — in junior outfielder Dylan Crews and the 2023 Pitcher of the Year winner in junior pitcher Paul Skenes. Additionally, five of the eight teams to make it to Omaha had both a pitcher and a position player that made one of the three All-American teams. 

While it is very clear that the bats are hot in Charlottesville and the Cavaliers are poised to have a position player on an All-American team, the same cannot be said about the pitching staff. Virginia’s electric batting lineup has the ability to win games without top-notch pitching, but it absolutely does not have the ability to reach the College World Series and win a national title on its own. 

Whether it be in experience, depth or consistency, multiple things have to be improved throughout the Cavalier pitching staff if Virginia wants to be a contender on the national stage like they were last year. If nothing gets better, they will continue to struggle against tough lineups and eventually meet their season’s end much earlier than was expected in the preseason. 

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