O’Connor on pitching to Honeycutt: ‘It was the right matchup’

By Jerry Ratcliffe

No sooner had Virginia dropped its opening game of the College World Series, a 3-2, bottom-of-the-ninth walk-off loss to North Carolina, than Cavalier fans wanted to know why UVA decided to pitch to the Tar Heels’ Vance Honeycutt.

UNC’s center fielder, hitting .314 on the season with 65 RBI coming into the game, is considered a top-20, first-round draft pick by The Sporting News in the upcoming Major League Draft.

When Honeycutt came up to bat in the bottom of the ninth on Friday, he was 0 for 4 on the day and had a runner on third with two outs.

Virginia coach Brian O’Connor had a decision to make. Throw to Honeycutt or intentionally put him on base and face leftfielder Casey Cook, the next batter. Cook is hitting .339 on the season and was 3 for 4 in the game with an RBI.

O’Connor elected to have reliever Chase Hungate throw to Honeycutt, who singled to left and drove in the winning run.

Afterward, O’Connor defended his decision in the postgame press conference.

“It was the right matchup,” O’Connor said. “I’ll tell you, Cook, I think, is their best hitter in the lineup. So it wasn’t an option for us to walk Honeycutt. Honeycutt’s a great player. He has a lot of home runs (26), but I felt we had handled him really good all day.

“And the guy on deck (Cook) had had a terrific day. Actually when they played in Charlottesville, I actually intentionally walked Cook because I have so much respect for him as a hitter. I just think he has a really good balanced approach and hits the ball to all fields.”

The Virginia coach said that when Hungate managed to get UNC’s number nine hitter in the lineup, Colby Wilkerson, to pop out for the second out, he was determined to go after Honeycutt.

“He’s a fantastic player, one of the best players in the country, but that was the best matchup, to try to get him to hit a ball on the ground,” O’Connor said. “Unfortunately, Hungate fell behind in the count and hung a slider there a little bit too much and Honeycutt did a really nice job with it.”

North Carolina coach Scott Forbes said he didn’t disagree with O’Connor’s decision.

“I would have done the same thing,” Forbes said. “Casey Cook’s over 80 RBI and he’s got a knack … he’s got the biggest knack for driving in runs for our team. So it’s a good feeling when I’m coaching third base because I’m always trying to get back to the top of the order.”

Forbes said the power of left-handed hitting Cook, sandwiched in between powerful right-handed hitters that also drive in runs, is a luxury because it gives opponents a tough decision to make.

“[Honeycutt] has shown in his career that he enjoys the big moment,” the Carolina coach said. “So I’m just hoping we can get more guys on base for him because when guys are on base for him and Casey Cook and Parks Harber, they’ve driven in runs for us all year.”