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Baseball’s bullpen — previous despair and future repair

The Cavalier arms have been largely disappointing in 2024, but the secret to success is an in-house fix

<p>An eight-man bullpen unit featuring the pitchers who have been the most reliable is the best course of action.&nbsp;</p>

An eight-man bullpen unit featuring the pitchers who have been the most reliable is the best course of action. 

Virginia’s pitching staff is not great, and that can be shown through a simple number — it surrenders a frustrating earned run average of 5.69 runs per game. Last season, that number was 3.81. It is not hyperbole to say that pitching failure is the primary reason that the Cavaliers are mathematically unable to repeat as division champions. Losing all three 2023 weekend starters to MLB organizations does not help — and could explain part of the pitching struggles in 2024 — but focusing specifically on the bullpen, a slight majority of pitchers have actually been with Virginia for multiple seasons. The experience is there and should be yielding positive results. 

The pitching staff has not changed too much, but statistically, pitchers have been an obvious achilles heel for the No.18 team in the country. If slumping pitchers continue to receive meaningful innings over others with better statistics, the Cavaliers will surely face a swift exit in the early goings of the NCAA Tournament.

The problem can be condensed into one key issue — poor roster management — and that issue can be highlighted through a heart-shattering example. In the 2023 College World Series, then-No.7 Virginia faced off against then-No.2 Florida in the opening contest. While the College World Series does have a double-elimination format, losing the first game usually spells doom for any hopeful team.

Then-junior pitcher Jake Berry took the mound in the bottom of the seventh inning, needing to record one out. He successfully induced a groundout, preserving a 4-2 Virginia lead. Berry got the ball again in the bottom of the eighth inning though and surrendered a home run on just his second pitch of the frame. Berry was then able to record three straight outs, but the game certainly hung in the balance.

With the lead having shrunk to just 4-3, then-freshman outfielder Harrison Didawick cranked a RBI triple to give Virginia some insurance — a 5-3 lead entering the bottom of the ninth inning. With the game on the line, Coach Brian O’Connor turned to Berry again, even though several relief pitchers were available.

Facing the first batter in the bottom of the ninth inning, Berry gave up another home run to shrink the Cavaliers lead to 5-4. He then picked up an electric strikeout but subsequently gave up a third home run — allowing the Gators to tie the game at five runs apiece. O’Connor watched his struggling pitcher give up a trio of home runs but left him in the game, again, with several relief options watching from the bullpen.

In Virginia’s most important game of the season, a traumatic collapse ensued. Berry was unable to recover from giving up the three home runs, as he allowed a single, a walk and then hit a batter to load the bases with just one out. It was only then, with the game practically over, that O’Connor turned to then-sophomore pitcher Jay Woolfolk for any fleeting hope at extra innings.

With a sacrifice fly by then-freshman catcher Luke Heyman, Florida walked off Virginia — putting the Cavaliers on the brink of College World Series elimination and robbing them of what should have been an exciting victory. Berry was tagged with a team-worst fifth loss of the season and finished 2023 with an 0-5 record.

Berry’s 3.93 ERA was nothing to scoff at, but two relievers with a sub-3.0 ERA were available. Instead, the team watched as the Gators scored four runs in the final two innings, stealing a 6-5 victory. An individually dismal performance cost Virginia a must-win game. The Cavaliers went on to lose 4-3 against Texas Christian, leaving the College World Series as the first team eliminated. 

While the 2024 team is not as dominant as last year’s squad that went 50-15, Virginia is still inarguably one of the nation’s top programs. The offense continues to operate at a very high level — the Cavaliers have the third best scoring offense across all Power Five teams — but O’Connor and pitching coach Drew Dickinson continue to struggle with bullpen management.

Pitchers junior Jay Woolfolk and sophomore Cullen McKay — who has usually been a starter in 2024 — have regressed, massively, each seeing an ERA increase of more than four runs per game. Sophomore Kevin Jaxel’s ERA ballooned from 3.75 to an unplayable 10.38. Freshmen Freddy Beruvides Jr. and Charlie Oschell both have an abominable ERA of 11.0 or worse. Junior Blake Barker is one of just four Cavalier pitchers to have made more than 20 appearances but has a horrendous 7.96 ERA despite his strong fastball. These struggles have usually been the main culprit for a Virginia loss. A few promising pitchers having rough seasons is an issue, but the bigger problem is that they continue to receive playing time in critical innings.

Instead, O’Connor and company should turn to a strict eight-man bullpen arsenal — like most MLB clubs. Junior right-handed pitcher Chase Hungate is the first option, as he leads all Cavalier relief pitchers in wins with a 6-1 record and a reliable 3.76 ERA. Junior left-handed pitcher Dean Kampschror is also a top option, sporting a 2-0 record and a 3.48 ERA — a mark that leads all Cavaliers with double-digit appearances. Graduate pitcher Angelo Tonas has also been strong, as he is 2-0 with a decent 4.15 mark. This core group must receive more innings if Virginia is to avenge last year’s frustratingly early exit in the College World Series.

Graduate pitcher Owen Coady provides durability in the middle innings and as an occasional starter, with a 1-1 record and a 4.73 ERA. Sophomore Ryan Osinski, standing at a strong 6-foot-6 and 235 lbs, carries a 4-1 record with a respectable 4.76 ERA — while freshman Matt Augustin has been decent with a 2-0 record and 5.09 ERA. All six pitchers have made at least 13 appearances and have produced strong statistics, but the final two intriguing options have a different background.

Freshman Bryson Moore has made just seven appearances in 2024 — four of them as a starter — but he has consistently dazzled, allowing just two earned runs in 13 innings of work. Moore is 2-0 with a 1.38 mark and, should he not receive a starting spot in the postseason, absolutely deserves to be a prominent reliever. 

The other interesting option is sophomore utility player Aidan Teel, who was previously trotted out as the closer earlier in the season. His 7.06 ERA is far from ideal, but he leads the team with six saves and opponents have hit just .230 against the talented right-hander. Teel is incredibly talented and has a knack for making big plays in the biggest moments.

The 2024 Cavaliers are undeniably one of the best in college baseball and are essentially guaranteed to receive a postseason bid as a Regional host. Should they advance to the Super Regional though, they will almost certainly be playing as the visiting team. The road back to Omaha, Neb. is going to be more difficult than 2023. If Virginia can make it back to the College World Series for the third time in four years though, O’Connor and staff should remember the nightmarish collapse against Florida and rely on the relievers who have produced the best statistics. To make it to Omaha at all, let alone earn redemption, change is needed.

An eight-man bullpen unit featuring the pitchers who have been the most reliable — and semi-resistant to occasional disastrous outings — is the best course of action. When one is struggling, there are several other options who are capable of shutting down an opposing offense. These relievers can then in turn focus on putting the fate of the game into the hands of an ideal matchup — Virginia’s nation-best offense versus any opponent’s pitching that dares throw to the surging Cavalier bats. 


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