For the second consecutive week, the Virginia Cavaliers traveled south to the state of North Carolina to take on a Top 25 conference opponent. And for the second consecutive week, the Virginia Cavaliers dominated on the road and just narrowly missed the opportunity for an impressive series sweep. Still, a 4-2 record to start ACC play is nothing to scoff at, especially when paired with an undefeated non-conference record so far. After starting the season with a ton of question marks, particularly within their pitching staff, it's safe to say that the Hoos have exceeded expectations thus far.
The series started on Thursday night, just hours after the UVA basketball team was upset in the first round of March Madness by Furman. With a fireworks display from each lineup expected over the course of three days, fans were instead treated to some fantastic pitching performances.
Coming into the 2023 season, Virginia had to replace about 75% of the innings pitched last season, with Jay Woolfolk and Jake Berry the only returning arms to have pitched more than 20 innings a season ago. Graduate transfers Nick Parker and Brian Edgington continue to impress with their ability to wiggle out of pitching jams and strand baserunners despite not being the most formidable 1-2 weekend rotation punch. And, first year Jack O'Connor has been extremely impressive on Sundays.
On Thursday night, the two teams managed to combine for just 3 total runs, as the aforementioned Parker and NC State's Logan Whitaker went head-to-head in an old school pitching duel. That transitioned to Jake Berry versus the Wolfpack's Sam Highfill going head-to-head out of the bullpen for multiple innings. Virginia managed to hold on 2-1, as Berry went 2.2 innings to earn the save and take game one following Parker's 5 innings of one-run baseball. Jake Gelof and Kyle Teel had the two RBIs for Virginia on Thursday night, while Jacob Cozart, the NC State catcher, provided their lone run, with a solo shot to right field in the 4th inning.
The Wolfpack lost at home midweek to Elon 14-6, and it was the former Elon ace Edgington dominating them on Friday afternoon with 6.1 shutout innings, as Virginia broke open a 1-0 game in the 8th inning by scoring four runs, then tacking on two more in the 9th, enroute to a dominant series-clinching 7-0 win. Matt Willadsen went seven strong innings of 1-run ball for the Wolfpack, but with Highfill unavailable after 3.1 innings thrown the previous night, the NC State bullpen collapsed. Perhaps more concerning for the Wolfpack was the goose egg put up by their power-laden lineup, who to this point in the series had only scored the one run.
The series finale featured yet another pitching duel, as two freshmen in O'Connor and NC State's Dominic Fritton battled into the 6th inning of a 2-1 ballgame, NC State leading. With Virginia going for the sweep, it once again came down to the bullpen aces of Berry and Highfill. Highfill was outstanding, adding another 2.1 innings of shutout relief to his resume, as Virginia floundered in the late innings. But when NC State turned to Justin Lawson to close out the game, following a dismal game 2 performance, the Virginia stars took advantage.
Gelof and Teel went back-to-back to deep left off Lawson to give Virginia a 4-2 lead in the 9th inning and suddenly, the sweep was on. But after throwing 2.2 innings of relief on Thursday and the 8th inning in game 3 already, perhaps closing out the 9th inning was a bridge too far for Berry. The first two outs of the 9th inning were hard hit ground balls that could easily have been base hits had they not been robbed by Gelof, and the Wolfpack battled to load the bases after cutting the deficit to 4-3. Instead of going back to the bullpen, Coach Brian O'Connor opted to stick with his 6'10'" closer to get Wolfpack freshman Cannon Peebles. Instead, Peebles hit the first pitch past a diving Griff O'Ferrall at shortstop to drive in two runs, walking-off the Cavaliers by a score of 5-4.
It was a bittersweet moment for the Hoos as they already had the series wrapped and won, but having a 5-1 road start to ACC play against Top 25 opponents would've been the cherry on top of the sundae. For the Wolfpack, however, the win was critical, as they avoided a 1-5 start in ACC play and an 0-4 week at home.
Teel and Gelof both had big series despite their numbers not jumping off the page, but their eight combined hits accounted for 40% of Virginia's total hits, and they were responsible for driving in 10 of Virginia's 13 runs scored in the series. Combine that with their fantastic defensive play, and it's clear those two hitters were really the difference between the two teams over the course of the series. Without their performances, we'd likely be talking about an NC State sweep.
Virginia's pitching has been better than expected to start the year, and the pitching staff looks almost as deep as the 2021 CWS team, but Coach O'Connor seems to be over-relying on Jay Woolfolk and Berry to carry the load for the bullpen moving forward. The two bullpen aces combined to pitch for only 6.2 innings over three games, but NC State is too good of a lineup to face a reliever that many times and not capitalize. Not a single other pitcher was given an opportunity to throw a full inning. Jacob Hodorovich, who was outstanding on Thursday and struck out both batters he faced, was not seen again. We're only just starting conference play, so perhaps this handling of the bullpen is still just Coach O'Connor learning who he can rely on.
Casey Saucke is not having the second year he'd like to be having. After appearing on many National All-Freshman teams following the 2022 season, he's slumping a little bit. After a weekend in Raleigh, his average is now down to .289 after hitting .360 in 53 games a season ago. Against NC State he went 0-13 and failed to reach base in any of his appearances. With aspirations of Omaha this year, Virginia is going to need Saucke to break out of his sophomore slump hitting behind Gelof and Teel to get there. While Gelof and Teel can take over a series, the Hoos will not be able to get away with that over and over unless they get help from the likes of Saucke, O'Ferrall, Ethan Anderson, and Ethan O'Donnell.
Virginia is back in action on Tuesday hosting High Point at 4 pm on ACCNX.