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Virginia baseball rallies late to claim Super Regional victory over Kansas State

The Cavaliers demonstrated resilience on both sides of the ball, emerging a win away from a trip to Omaha

<p>Virginia players stand along the baseline before their pivotal Super Regional battle with Kansas State.&nbsp;</p>

Virginia players stand along the baseline before their pivotal Super Regional battle with Kansas State. 

No. 12 Virginia baseball hosted Game 1 of the NCAA Super Regionals at Disharoon Park against Kansas State Friday evening. The Cavaliers (45-15, 18-12 ACC) swept their way through the Charlottesville Regional last week to advance, while the Wildcats (35-25, 15-15 Big 12) emerged victorious out of the Fayetteville Regional as underdogs, toppling No. 5 Arkansas in the process. Sophomore pitcher Evan Blanco received the nod for Virginia in the first game of the best-of-three series, pitching seven strong innings to lead the Cavaliers to a crucial 7-4 victory. 

Despite the eventual win later in the evening, disaster struck for the Cavaliers just two pitches into the ballgame, as a routine pop fly to center field turned into a leadoff triple for Kansas State when graduate outfielder Bobby Whalen lost sight of the ball in the setting sun. The runner scored on an RBI fielder’s choice just a few pitches later. Unphased, Blanco worked through adversity to efficiently retire the side, though Virginia found itself in an early 1-0 hole. 

With ground to make up, the Cavaliers threatened with runners on first and third bases in the bottom of the first inning but were unable to convert the scoring opportunity. Defensively, Virginia continued to struggle with another error allowing a Wildcat runner to get on base in the second. However, graduate catcher Jacob Ference sent the runner to the dugout at third on an overzealous attempt to advance on a passed ball, neutralizing the threat. 

The Cavaliers once again failed to plate their baserunners in the bottom of the second, while Kansas State made the most of its opportunities in the third. Blanco relented a single and hit a batter in the helmet before junior infielder and Fayetteville Regional MVP Kaelen Culpepper fired off an RBI double to left field to extend the Wildcat lead to 3-0. 

Virginia’s offensive impotence carried into the third inning as it stranded a runner in scoring position for the third straight inning, this time as Ference grounded a ball into a frustrating inning-ending double play. Blanco and the defense finally settled in for their first clean inning of the contest in the top of the fourth, as Kansas State went down in order. 

Sophomore outfielder Harrison Didawick led off the bottom of the fourth inning with a scorching double into the left-center gap, coming just a few feet short of setting the single-season home run record for the Cavaliers. Despite being in the perfect position to get on the scoreboard, the bottom of the lineup looked uninspired, going down three in a row. Meanwhile, Blanco continued to get better as the game progressed with two more strikeouts in a quick top of the fifth. 

After an extended scoring drought for one of the nation’s top offenses, momentum swung back towards Virginia in the bottom of the fifth inning as a walk and Wildcat error once more spelled opportunity for the Cavaliers with no outs. Though the typical bases-clearing hit never came, an RBI sacrifice fly and fielder’s choice brought in two runs and shrank the deficit to just one at 3-2. Blanco continued to pitch well into the sixth, notching a strikeout and inducing a double play to the delight of the Virginia faithful. 

Building on the momentum, the Cavaliers hit consecutive singles to take Kansas State graduate pitcher Owen Boerema out of the ballgame in the bottom of the sixth. Freshman pitcher Blake Dean entered in relief and conceded a two-run ground-rule double to junior infielder Griff O’Ferrall to bring Disharoon to its feet once more. Though O’Ferrall was stranded, Virginia finally led 4-3. 

The lead was short-lived — the Wildcats struck back in the top of the seventh inning with a solo home run hit just beneath the scoreboard by junior infielder David Bishop to tie the game. Blanco continued to show poise despite the mistake, efficiently disposing of the batters on either side of Bishop in what would be his final inning on the mound. 

For Kansas State in the bottom of the seventh, Dean put two runners on base before his night came to an end. When Didawick reached on a fielder’s choice due to an errant throw on the attempted double play turn, sophomore infielder Henry Godbout made the Wildcats pay. Sending a line drive three-run home run to left field, Disharoon erupted as Godbout delivered what would be the winning blow to put the Cavaliers up 7-4. 

Graduate pitcher Angelo Tonas took the mound in the top of the eighth inning, pitching to contact for a quick one-two-three inning. Virginia again put traffic on the basepaths in the bottom of the inning but ultimately hoped its three-run advantage would hold in the top of the ninth. 

After Tonas retired the first batter of the inning, Coach Brian O’Connor turned to freshman pitcher Matt Augustin to complete the ninth. After inducing a flyout with the home crowd on its feet, Augustin slammed the door shut on the Wildcats with a strikeout to send the Virginia fans home happy. 

The win was Virginia’s 23rd comeback victory of the season and third of the postseason. Though the Cavaliers fell behind early, Blanco’s unwavering command on the mound through difficult circumstances was crucial to the victory — in seven innings he collected nine strikeouts against just one walk to earn the win. 

“Blanco’s effort tonight was really special,” O’Connor said. “You know your job as a starter, even if you fall behind, is to go out there keep your team involved. And he kept us in the game enough … I really feel that Evan Blanco’s outing to get us to the eighth inning was the difference in the ballgame.”

Godbout showed similar resilience at the plate, striking out twice before delivering in the biggest possible way. 

“I kind of blacked out,” Godbout said. “Just a pretty special moment.”

Virginia now finds itself just one win away from a trip to Omaha, Neb. to compete in the College World Series for the third time out of the last four seasons. The Cavaliers will prepare for a quick turnaround as they will face Kansas State at 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon. Junior pitcher Jay Woolfolk is the expected starter, and the game will be broadcast on ESPNU.

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