Did O’Connor wait too long as UVA bullpen blows lead against Gators?

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

After reliever Jake Berry had given up a solo home run to Florida’s BT Riopelle in the bottom of the eighth, allowing the Gators to trim Virginia’s lead to 4-3, the Cavaliers’ big southpaw retired the next three batters to end the inning.

When he came back for the ninth, UVA had added an insurance run. All Berry needed was three more outs to lock up the win in the opener for both teams in the College World Series.

Then the sky fell. Berry was tagged for another leadoff, solo home run, again drawing Florida within a run. Instead of getting the hook, Virginia coach Brian O’Connor decided to stick with the towering, 6-foot-10 left-hander.

The Cavaliers had depended on Berry heavily in such situations throughout their 50-win season, and O’Connor decided to do it again. Berry mowed down the next batter, but the wheels were coming off, and instead of going back to the bullpen, where Jay Woolfolk was warmed up, the UVA skipper stayed with Berry.

The gamble blew up like an exploding cigar. Florida’s Wyatt Langford hammered a 456-foot blast to deep left field, knotting the game at 5-all. The Gators, the nation’s No. 2 seed, went on to load the bases against a struggling Berry, who gave up a single, a walk, and then hit a batter before he finally got the hook.

Too late.

Woolfolk, who had made only two short appearances since facing North Carolina on May 25, came into a near-impossible predicament, doomed to fail. Florida’s Luke Heyman hit a long fly ball to center that allowed teammate Jac Caglianone to tag up at third and score the winning run, 6-5, with a walkoff sacrifice.

For a complete blow-by-blow account of the game, along with box score, brackets and notes, see our game story here.

“I have zero regret,” O’Connor said of his bullpen decisions. “Jake Berry has done the job for this team all year long. He’s been tremendous when we’ve had a lead and closed games out for us. 

“Certainly I don’t feel great about how we pitched out of our bullpen tonight. It has been a little bit of a mixed bag all year.”

The coach said UVA’s game plan was to go with Berry in the eighth if the Cavaliers owned the lead because that formula had worked all season.

“I don’t know for sure, but I would be surprised if all year that we’ve lost a game putting Jake Berry in the eighth inning or beyond with a lead,” O’Connor said.

It was the first time in the last 94 games Virginia lost when leading after eight innings.

Even though Florida had fallen behind, the Gators knew they had the firepower — they led the nation in home runs (129) coming into the weekend — to come back and win the game.

Langford was supremely confident that Florida would find a way to pull out the win.

“Going up to the plate I was thinking the same thing I always do,” Langford said. “I was going up there to compete and get on base and pass the torch for the next man to eventually lead us to winning the game.

“It’s just kind of embedded in us,” said Riopelle, who has seven home runs over his last nine hits. “It’s been drilled into us or preached to us since the first day we got on campus, that we’re always bringing the attack to our opponent. We don’t let the opponent dictate the pace of the game or the way we play. We dictate that.”

Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said that for the first six or seven innings, the wind at Charles Schwab Stadium was blowing in and preventing balls from flying out, but all that changed in the eighth, when he looked out and saw the outfield flags were still.

The Gators had the proof to back up their confidence. It was the 21st time this season Florida has come from behind to win, including four walk-off victories.

Berry, who had been golden for UVA in the postseason, was remarkably candid about his shortcomings Friday night.

“I’m not too happy with how I performed,” Berry said after the game. “I wish I could have some pitches back. I didn’t have what I needed to get the job done. I know I’m our guy in that situation. I felt confident I was going to get the job done no matter what, and I couldn’t.”

O’Connor was keenly aware of Florida’s power.

“Their power showed and their approach showed the back part of the game, and they did a great job,” O’Connor said of the aggressive Gators. “Certainly you hit that many home runs, at some point it’s going to show up. We managed around it and were still leading by a run. But Jake Berry just couldn’t finish them off.”

The question will linger if O’Connor waited too long to pull Berry, or were he and pitching coach Drew Dickinson reluctant to go with the little-used Woolfolk? Both said during the week that they had confidence in Woolfolk, that there wasn’t anything physically wrong with the reliever, who perhaps was thinking too much about recent outings.

O’Connor and Berry will shoulder the blame for the loss, one for the reluctance to grab the hook, the other for his inability to handle Gators’ bats. Regardless, Virginia has a day to regroup and prepare to play its way out of the losers bracket when it takes on TCU on Sunday afternoon, perhaps for another shot at Florida.