Blanco, Woolfolk get starting nods for Super Regional

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Brian O’Connor couldn’t have rubbed a magic genie lamp and gotten a better wish granted than the way his pitching staff dominated last weekend’s Charlottesville Regional, sweeping Penn and Mississippi State twice to earn this weekend’s role as host to Kansas State in the NCAA Super Regional.

The Virginia coach will rely heavily on his pitchers against the visiting Wildcats, starting with tonight’s opening game (7 p.m., ESPNU) in the best-of-three series, the eventual winner punching its ticket to Omaha.

Evan Blanco, who led the way in UVA’s first win over Mississippi State, will start for the Cavaliers tonight, while Jay Woolfolk has been named the starter for Saturday (3 p.m., ESPNU). Woolfolk is coming off the best performance of his career, an 8-inning dominance over Mississippi State last Sunday night. If necessary, a third game will be played Sunday at 3 p.m., also on ESPNU.

Tonight will be a battle of lefties, as Blanco will go against Kansas State southpaw, senior Owen Boerema.

“Early on in the ACC season, we moved Blanco to that number one starter and he’s just been incredibly consistent,” O’Connor said Thursday. “We have a ton of confidence in Evan, he’s a bulldog, he’s a competitor. He’s pitched big ball games for us all year and he had the experience last weekend against Mississippi State.”

Some may have expected Joe Savino, who opened last weekend against Penn, to start on Saturday, but the coaching staff gave the nod to Woolfolk.

“Jay threw the ball exceptionally well last weekend when we needed him the most,” O’Connor said. “Certainly Savino was an option, and he’s been pitching great baseball for us, but at this time of year you look at things a little bit differently.

“After we evaluated Kansas State, we just felt like our best decision was to go Blanco in game one. He’s been going most of the year and Jay earned his opportunity. He stepped up as good as I’ve seen somebody and he’s earned that opportunity to start.”

The Wildcats, from the Big 12, are 35-24 and looking for their first-ever trip to the College World Series. They earned their way to Charlottesville by winning the Fayettville (Ark.) Regional. Kansas State was the third seed in that region and defeated No. 2 seed Louisiana Tech, then top seed and host Arkansas, then fourth-seeded Southeast Missouri State to advance.

O’Connor said his team hasn’t faced an offense like Kansas State’s since taking on ACC opponent Louisville earlier this season.

“They’re very similar to Louisville,” O’Connor said. “Their offensive style is that they’ll run a lot and put pressure on you, but certainly they have plenty of players than can stand at home plate and hit the ball out of the ballpark. They proved that last weekend.”

The Wildcats are coached by Pete Hughes, the former head coach at Virginia Tech and a longtime rival of O’Connor’s, going back to when O’Connor was an assistant coach at Notre Dame and Huges was head coach at Boston College.

While UVA’s coaching staff has thoroughly scouted Kansas State, O’Connor said Virginia’s game plan will be to stick with what got the Cavaliers to the verge of Omaha once again.

“It comes down to what we do,” the UVA skipper said. “We won’t change what we do in any facet of the game. You put it in the players’ hands and you believe that’s good enough. You don’t change this time of year just because of somebody’s approach. We’re going to continue to execute our gameplan just like we have done all year.”

O’Connor said the Wildcats are aggressive on the base paths, constantly applying pressure with their threat to steal bases.

“You know, they’ll steal third base. There’s some programs that will play all year and won’t even attempt to steal third base, so I think that’s where [Kansas State] is, very similar to Louisville. Louisville always has over 100 stolen bases and will put pressure on you in different ways.”

From a pitching and defensive standpoint, the coach pointed out that it’s important to limit as many free passes to the Wildcats as possible.

Kansas State features some high-quality starting pitchers, a number of left-handers with good numbers and good stuff.

“It’s easy to look at their relief pitcher, Ty Neighbors (junior right-hander), who is as talented as I think anybody in college baseball. He has a wealth of experience an he’s a bulldog. He knows what he’s doing and has a great arm with really good off-speed stuff and when comes into the game, he’s a tough guy to get runs off of. He’s as good as you’ll see out there,” O’Connor said.