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Baseball advances to the College World Series

Virginia swept Kansas State in the Charlottesville Super Regional to return to Omaha, Neb.

The Cavaliers celebrate their second consecutive College World Series apperance.
The Cavaliers celebrate their second consecutive College World Series apperance.

No. 12 Virginia baseball hosted the second game of the NCAA Charlottesville Super Regional Saturday against Kansas State. The Cavaliers (46-15, 18-12 ACC) were victorious over the Wildcats (35-26, 15-15 Big 12), winning 10-4, and earned their way back to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. for a second-straight year. 

Junior right-handed pitcher Jay Woolfolk made the start for Virginia after an impressive showing of 100-plus pitches against Mississippi State Sunday that sent the Cavaliers to the Super Regionals in the first place. Woolfolk pitched a career-high eight innings and seven strikeouts to precede Saturday’s matchup but still showed confidence after having taken a backseat in the pitching lineup for most of the season.

Virginia started the game with an eruptive offense. After a fly out and strikeout from junior infielder Griff O’Ferrall and junior utility player Ethan Anderson, junior outfielder Casey Saucke blasted a home run to left center and put the Cavaliers up 1-0. The strong offensive effort continued with a single from freshman infielder Henry Ford — the rookie advanced to second after a wild pitch by sophomore Kansas State pitcher Jackson Wentworth. 

Graduate catcher Jacob Ference was then walked by Wentworth, and with a single from sophomore outfielder Harrison Didawick, Ford rounded the bases to bring the score to 2-0. A second wild pitch put Didawick on second and Ference on third, but a groundout from sophomore infielder Henry Godbout stranded the two runners in scoring position and ended the top of the inning.

Woolfolk walked the first batter he faced in the bottom of the first, and the runner subsequently stole second. A Wildcat bunt allowed the runner to reach third, and on the following at-bat, the runner reached home to cut the lead 2-1. However, Woolfolk was able to retire three batters and escape the inning still ahead.

The second inning was a quick series of outs for the Virginia offense, with freshman infielder Eric Becker, graduate outfielder Bobby Whalen and O’Ferrall unable to make a play on the ball. Woolfolk struggled to retire the Kansas State batters entering into the bottom of the second, allowing two singles and a stolen base. A ground out to O’Ferrall allowed a Wildcat runner to score and level the game 2-2. However, Woolfolk turned things around and struck out two batters in a row to halt the scoring efforts made by Kansas State.

The Cavaliers struggled yet again on offense in the third inning. After an Anderson walk, two quick outs and a reckless attempt at a stolen base cut off the Virginia offense. Two fly-outs to start the bottom of the inning were followed by a double for the Wildcats, putting yet another runner in scoring position and threatening a Kansas State lead. A pop-up to Becker halted the scoring opportunity and ended the inning with the score still locked at two runs apiece.

There were no offensive opportunities for either squad in the fourth inning — Woolfolk and Wentworth allowed no hits or walks. However, Virginia found its offensive rhythm again in the fifth inning, starting with a Becker double and followed by singles from Whalen and O’Ferrall. With the bases loaded, the Cavaliers were looking for a spark to fire up the scoreboard. 

Anderson struck out, and when a fielder’s choice from Saucke advanced the runners, Becker was out at home. Leaving Virginia with one out and a need to put some runs on the board, Ford hit a clutch single to score O’Ferrall and Whalen, putting the Cavaliers up 4-2. 

Woolfolk continued to shine on the mound, retiring the first two batters in the lineup. Unfortunately, he allowed a home run followed by a triple, cutting the lead to 4-3. However, he was able to rebound, ending the inning with a fly out and stopping any opportunity for a tie score.

Didawick opened the sixth inning with a fly out, but Godbout hit a single to get on base and open up the offense. Becker and Whalen were unable to capitalize and create any offense, however. Back on defense, Woolfolk asserted himself in the bottom of the sixth, striking out the first two batters for a total of seven for the day — matching his career high set Sunday. A ground out to Becker ended the inning with Virginia still leading 4-3.

The Wildcats opened the seventh with a pitching change, putting star junior pitcher Tyson Neighbors on the mound in relief. Neighbors struck out O’Ferrall and walked Anderson, but then Anderson was picked off at second. With one out remaining, Saucke and Neighbors were both under pressure to make big plays. Ultimately, Neighbors succumbed to the pressure and walked Saucke before a wild pitch allowed him to reach second base. With a runner in scoring position, the Cavaliers needed a play to get Saucke home, but Ford hit a foul out to end the inning with the score still 4-3.

Woolfolk walked the first batter in the bottom of the seventh inning, but Ference and Godbout made a play on an attempted stolen base and secured the crucial first out of the inning. A Kansas State double then prompted a pitching change for Virginia, and graduate left-handed pitcher Angelo Tonas took over for Woolfolk. Tonas entered with a bang, as he retired the next two batters to end the inning.

The Cavaliers needed to add some runs to the score as the eighth inning started, but prompt outs by Ference and Didawick left one chance for a big play. After Godbout walked, Becker hit a much-needed double to right center field that scored Godbout and widened the lead to 5-3. 

A Wildcat home run prompted another pitching change, with junior right-handed pitcher Chase Hungate taking over for Tonas. Hungate took care of business and retired three batters in a row to end the inning with a 5-4 lead.

Kansas State replaced Neighbors with graduate pitcher Josh Wintroub in the top of the ninth. After an O’Ferrall fly out, Anderson and Saucke each hit singles. Ford got out and left Virginia in a tough spot, with one out and a great need for insurance runs in their last at-bat. Ference saw that need and delivered with a triple that scored Saucke and Anderson, increasing the lead to 7-4. A Didawick walk and stolen base kept the action going, with two runners in scoring position. 

After Wintroub walked Godbout, the bases were loaded, and the Cavaliers had an opportunity to deepen their lead once more. The Wildcats took the opportunity as a sign to make yet another pitching change, putting graduate pitcher JJ Slack on the mound. Sophomore infielder Luke Hanson was put in to hit for Becker, and he hit a massive double down the left field line that scored Godbout, Ference and Didawick. Virginia ended the inning with a ground out and headed into the bottom of the ninth up 10-4.

In the field, the bottom of the ninth saw the same Becker-Hanson change reflected at third-base. Hungate took charge on the mound and retired all three Kansas State batters, striking out the final Wildcat. With the final score of 10-4 on the board, the Cavaliers rushed the field to celebrate a spot in the College World Series. 

After a regional in which defensive plays stole the show, Virginia’s offense starred in the two Super Regional games — out-hitting the Wildcats 9-5 Friday and 13-7 Saturday. The Cavaliers now head to the College World Series with a sparkling 5-0 record in NCAA Tournament play. 

“They played their best baseball these last two weekends,” Coach Brian O’Connor said. “Certainly we’ve got more to do in front of us. We’re going to enjoy today and tonight and then regroup tomorrow and get ready for our plan of what we need to do in Omaha to keep this thing going.”

The performance by Woolfolk Sunday left questions about how he would perform next when given the chance. Though he was relieved in the seventh, Woolfolk’s performance and the bullpen as a whole confirmed that any doubt about the strength of Virginia’s pitchers is no longer a concern. O’Connor noted the season-long discourse about the Cavaliers’ pitching after the game.

“People might have been down on our pitching,” O’Connor said. “But I knew what they are made of and I knew their stuff is good enough in that it would come back around. Jay is the perfect example of that.”

Even though the official game times and opponents will not be settled until the conclusion of all Super Regionals, Virginia will play its first College World Series contest Friday against rival North Carolina. Featuring one of the best offenses in college baseball and pitching that is constantly improving, the Cavaliers could make some serious noise on the greatest stage of college baseball.

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