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Virginia baseball falters, drops series to NC State

The Cavaliers struggled in their penultimate regular season series

<p>The series serves as a disappointment for Virginia, whose season-long flaws were exposed by a quality in-conference opponent.&nbsp;</p>

The series serves as a disappointment for Virginia, whose season-long flaws were exposed by a quality in-conference opponent. 

No. 10 Virginia’s five-game winning streak came to an untimely halt in this weekend’s series against No. 23 NC State. The Cavaliers (37-14, 15-12 ACC) bookended the weekend with costly losses to the Wolfpack (29-19, 15-11 ACC) in which the bullpen underperformed — a recurring issue this season. Though individual performances shone and Virginia picked up a meaningful win Saturday afternoon, the team’s postseason outlook remains in flux.

Game 1 — Virginia 5, NC State 7

Sophomore left-handed pitcher Evan Blanco took the ball Friday evening and immediately ran into trouble, relenting three consecutive hits including an RBI single before recording an out. Blanco escaped a bases-loaded jam by striking out three of the next four batters, but not before NC State managed to get a 1-0 lead. However, graduate catcher Jacob Ference gave the Cavaliers a two-run advantage with a two-out, three-run blast into the left field seats. 

Blanco settled in to toss three clean frames in a row, impressing with his command on the mound after a shaky start. Meanwhile Virginia’s offense again looked threatening in the bottom of the third with the bases loaded, but it failed to capitalize. In the top of the fifth, an error on a deep fly to junior right fielder Casey Saucke allowed the Wolfpack to push across an unearned run before Blanco relented a solo home run and exited the now-tied ballgame. 

Virginia’s offense continued to stall as the game progressed. In the top of the seventh, junior right-handed pitcher Chase Hungate coughed up another pair of runs by way of a slew of singles and a walk, allowing NC State a 5-3 advantage. Hungate failed to complete the inning, and junior left-handed pitcher Blake Barker was called in to stop the bleeding. 

In the eighth inning, the teams traded two-run home runs. Junior right handed pitcher Jay Woolfolk gave up a consequential home run to his first batter faced, a microcosm of his season-long struggles to keep the Cavaliers within striking distance. Though freshman infielder Eric Becker brought the score to 7-5 with a home run of his own — his second in as many games — an uneventful ninth inning spelled a series opening loss for Virginia. Blanco finished with 4.2 innings and six hits, though he struck out eight, while Hungate was pinned with the loss.

Game 2 — Virginia 9, NC State 5

Graduate right-handed pitcher Joe Savino came to the mound in the series’ second game, immediately encountering trouble in the top of the first. However, he would strand the bases loaded to emerge unscathed. It took until the third inning for Virginia to break open the afternoon’s scoring, as junior infielder Griff O’Ferrall sent a sharp ground ball down the left field line for an RBI double, advancing to third on the throw. Graduate outfielder Bobby Whalen brought O’Ferrall home in the next at-bat, giving Virginia a 2-0 lead. Sophomore infielder Henry Godbout also contributed an RBI double the next inning.

Savino cruised into the fifth, having retired 12 batters in a row before relenting a run on an RBI double down the right field line. Undeterred, the Cavaliers continued to impress at the plate. Ference and freshman infielder Henry Ford smoked back-to-back home runs in the bottom of the fifth, marking Ford’s 16th home run of the year — one more than Mark Reynolds’ record of 15 in a single season for a freshman, set in 2002. Ford also secured the freshman RBI record at Virginia with the home run, which put the Cavaliers up 6-1. 

The sixth and seventh innings were quiet, though the Wolfpack fought back against a leaky Virginia bullpen to grab two runs in the eighth and ninth. However, a pair of RBIs from Whalen and Saucke in the bottom of the eighth was enough to secure a 9-5, series-tying victory for the Cavaliers. Savino earned his first win as a Cavalier, tossing 5.0 scoreless innings and striking out three batters.

Game 3 — Virginia 5, NC State 13

In the tiebreaker, graduate left-handed pitcher Owen Coady took the mound. While the previous two starters were able to dance around significant damage after allowing traffic on the basepaths, Coady gave up a three-run home run in the first to put the Cavaliers at an early 3-0 disadvantage. Virginia battled back in the bottom of the second, however, when Godbout, Becker and O’Ferrall all ripped consecutive RBI knocks to take a 4-3 lead.

NC State knocked Coady out of the game in the top of the fourth inning, benefiting from strong situational hitting, a wild pitch and a dropped fly ball to put up four runs on the Cavaliers. While sophomore outfielder Harrison Didawick launched his 19th home run of the season in the bottom of the fifth to pull Virginia within two at 7-5, they would be the team’s last runs of the afternoon. From the sixth to the eighth innings, the Cavalier bullpen allowed a steady trickle of runs, as the Wolfpack ran away with the game and series with a 13-5 win. 

The series serves as a disappointment for Virginia, whose season-long flaws were exposed by a quality in-conference opponent. The Cavaliers are top three in the nation in both batting average and hits, but their pitching staff is 115th in ERA and 123rd in strikeouts per nine innings. Though currently ranked 18th nationally, the team’s incongruity, lack of reliability on the mound and penchant for ill-timed errors in the field reared its head this weekend and has made their outlook for the rapidly approaching ACC Tournament and prospects for hosting a regional or super regional highly dependent on teams around them. 

“Today’s game was disappointing,” Coach Brian O’Connor said Sunday. “We just couldn’t get somebody to come out of the bullpen, or a combination of guys, to hold them down. They separated and it just made it an insurmountable comeback.” 

Virginia will next host Virginia Tech for an installment of the Commonwealth Clash as the regular season draws to a close. The series begins Thursday evening with the first pitch set for 6 p.m. All games will be broadcast on ACC Network. 

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