Blanco, Godbout star as Virginia opens Super Regional with 7-4 win over K-State

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photos: UVA Athletics

Every visiting coach who has come to Disharoon Park over the past few weeks has offered up the same analysis after playing Virginia: there’s no respite against the Cavaliers’ offense.

Kansas State coach Pete Hughes joined the refrain after Friday night’s opening game of the NCAA Super Regional, a 7-4 victory by UVA. It was the 23rd comeback win for the Cavaliers (45-15) this season and sets up Game 2 of the best-of-three series at 3 p.m.

“They are very similar offensively to the last time I coached against them and that was 2014,” said Hughes, who was head coach at Virginia Tech a decade ago. “There’s just no rest.

“One through nine, anyone can burn you and we saw that tonight. The middle of that lineup is really scary. O’Connor has had teams that have been built like this and this is a pretty impressive lineup they’ve put together.”

Impressive indeed.

Virginia, which ranks No. 2 nationally in team batting average (.336), found itself down to Kansas State until the middle innings, confident that its hitting attack would eventually get to Wildcats pitching. Trailing 3-0, the Cavaliers blasted through in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings to take control of the game.

The big blow came in the bottom of the seventh when sophomore second baseman Henry Godbout blasted a three-run rocket into deep left field (his ninth roundtripper of the season) to lift Virginia to a 7-4 lead.

K-State had just knotted the game at 4-all earlier in the inning when first baseman David Bishop hit his fourth homer of the season with nobody on.

Virginia didn’t get frustrated, leaving runners in scoring position stranded throughout the first four innings (six players left on base) while the Wildcats built a 3-0 command.

Kansas State took a quick 1-0 lead when its leadoff hitter, Brendan Jones, hit a high fly ball to center field and UVA outfielder Bobby Whalen lost it in the sun. Jones made it all the way to third on the play and scored on a groundout.

The Wildcats made it 3-0 in the third on a two-run double to left by Kaelen Culpepper.

Under the circumstances, Virginia’s starting pitcher, southpaw sophomore Evan Blanco, never panicked. He just focused more on the task at hand, preventing Kansas State from having a big inning.

While Godbout’s blast sent jam-packed Disharoon Park into celebration, Virginia coach Brian O’Connor believed the difference in the ballgame was Blanco keeping his focus and composure and getting the Cavaliers to the eighth inning without much damage done.

Blanco himself was confident that if he could hang in there, Virginia’s bats would eventually come to the rescue.

“I know it doesn’t matter how many runs I really give up, because I know that each game is going to be competitive when we have a lineup like this,” said Blanco, who picked up his eighth win of the season, giving up 5 hits, striking out nine and walking only one in 102 pitches.

O’Connor echoed that theory, mentioning the character of this team and its offensive potential.

“The depth of this lineup is incredibly impressive and that’s why it reminds me of a few teams in the past,” the UVA skipper said. “You’ve got to work as a pitcher in the opposing dugout because you give this team a gap, an opening, and a lot of times this year they’ve capitalized on it.”

O’Connor kept going back to the effort by Blanco and that he didn’t get shook early on with the sun ball costing a run or K-State’s two-run third. Instead, he settled in and became difficult to hit.

“I thought he responded like a winner,” O’Connor said. “Just concede the run, right? Don’t try to pitch out of the run on third base, no outs, just get the next guy in front of you and manage that inning, versus letting it become a multiple-run inning. It’s things like that, that ultimately win us the ballgame.”

Blanco has been a key part of Virginia’s success all season, O’Connor pointing to the coaching staff moving the southpaw to the Friday-night starter earlier in the season as a pivotal moment. The fact that the sophomore wanted to pitch the eighth inning and reluctantly gave up the ball, showed the coach his intensity and desire to win.

Kansas State (35-25), the surprise survivor of last weekend’s Fayetteville (Ark.) Regional where 12th-seeded Arkansas was the favorite, felt good after deadlocking the game in the seventh on Bishop’s bases-empty blast. In fact, Hughes said his team blew a chance in the bottom half of the inning that allowed Godbout’s heroics and turned the tide of the game.

Hughes was correct. With walks issued to Casey Saucke and Jacob Ference with one out, K-State made a pitching change, going with lefty Cole Wisenbaker. Harrison Didawick hit the ball back up the middle, fielded by Wisenbaker, who wisely went to second for the force out and a possible double play, but the Wildcats couldn’t pull it off, as Didawick reached on a fielder’s choice in what normally would have been a routine out.

That brought up Godbout, who hammered the ball and put Virginia in the lead for good.

“We liked the matchup,” Hughes said. “The batter before, we thought we had the double play. Wisenbaker just left the ball up and [Godbout] saw it and didn’t miss it. I thought we should have been out of the inning.”

Godbout said he was just looking for a good pitch, and that it was such a special moment that he blacked out on the details, but O’Connor didn’t when it came to praising his second baseman.

“After he had a couple of at-bats, I reminded him that it’s not how the game starts, it’s how the game ends,” O’Connor said of his conversation with Godbout. “Henry is a great player. I’ve seen him do that a number of times this year.

“Henry played almost every day for us last year at second base and didn’t hit home runs. But his skills at that time allowed us to win and he worked hard.

“Look at him physically. He’s a completely different player. I grabbed his arm this year and it’s different than grabbing his arm last year, and that’s hard work. He takes an incredible amount of pride in his craft. Lessons he learned last year and helped him step up in big moments this year.”

While the odds are greatly in favor of the opening-game winner advancing to the College World Series, both O’Connor and Hughes know this regional isn’t over.

“Kansas State is not going away,” O’Connor said.

Hughes said his message to his team will be, “We’ve done it all year (bounce back in best-of-three series). It’s a quick turnaround, but our mindset is great.”

Virginia will go with junior right-hander Jay Woolfolk on the mound. He was the hero of last Sunday’s closeout of Mississippi State as he dominated the Bulldogs with his best and deepest pitching performance of the year.

K-State will counter with sophomore righty Jackson Wentworth.