O’Connor: we had the right guy at the plate; Gelof’s blast comes up short in NCAA Regionals

uva jake gelof

Photo: UVA Athletics

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Had Friday’s opener of the NCAA Super Regional been played in Hollywood rather than Charlottesville, no doubt Jake Gelof would have been the hero.

The Virginia third baseman’s two-out, bottom of the ninth blast to left field would have sailed over the fence for a game-winning, walk off, three-run homer and sent sold out Disharoon Park into a frenzy with a dramatic, come-from-behind win.

“Once [O’Donnell] got on, I thought it was scripted right the way we wanted,” UVA coach Brian O’Connor said afterward of what might have been. “You’ve got the guy up that you believe in, that’s delivered RBIs his entire career. Maybe it would be a chance to hit the ball out of the ballpark and win … that’s what you want.”

Certainly that’s how Hollywood would have scripted the ending of the best-of-three series between Virginia and Duke. The Blue Devils had another ending in mind.

Instead of the 11th-hour heroics, Gelof’s deep fly ball landed in the glove of outstretched Duke left-fielder Tyler Albright at the fence, ending Virginia’s rally with a 5-4 Blue Devils’ victory. Game 2 is Saturday at noon.

Up until a two-run outburst by Duke bats in the top of the eighth, Virginia had led 4-3. The Cavaliers, who had lost only four times at home all season long heading into the weekend, had stacked up a 45-0 record when leading after six innings and were 101-1 at home when leading after seven.

(For a complete, blow-by-blow account of today’s game, see related game story, boxscore and notebook elsewhere on this site).

“I thought  O’Ferrall (single) and O’Donnell (base on balls) had passed the baton to Jake to give us a chance to win the game and that just didn’t happen,” O’Connor said. “I think [Gelof] just missed it.”

The capacity crowd held its collective breath once the ball left powerful Gelof’s bat, but his effort came up just short, leaving Wahoo fans looking toward Saturday for their heroes to even the series. The best-of-three winner advances to Omaha for the College World Series.

Even the Blue Devils were sweating in the seconds it took Gelof’s blast to reach deep left. After all, he is tied for the most single-season home runs in Cavalier history.

“I could tell it was a good swing,” said Duke coach Chris Pollard. “I couldn’t tell if he got it or not.”

Some of his players felt the same.

“Off the bat, I was a little nervous,” said Duke right-fielder Damon Lux. “He’s a great hitter, a great hitter and comes up big in situations. So, at first it was a little breathtaking.”

First baseman Luke Storm: “My heart dropped a little bit,” Storm said.

Virginia’s big sixth inning gave the Cavaliers a 4-3 lead before O’Connor pulled starting pitcher Nick Parker with two outs in the seventh. Evan Blanco came in to retire the Blue Devils before giving way to reliever Jay Woolfolk in the eighth.

Duke, winning for the sixth time when trailing after seven innings, ate up UVA’s bullpen, getting a pair of singles off Woolfolk, who was yanked after getting one out, and replaced by big Jake Berry with two runners on.

Berry, who had been effective in similar late-inning scenarios against East Carolina last weekend, struggled this time around. Duke drove in one run on a bases loaded fielder’s choice, followed by a RBI single to left by Storm for a 5-4 lead.

Virginia couldn’t muster a run in the bottom of the inning, while Berry used a double play to sit down Duke in the top of the ninth, setting up the drama-filled ending.

While Duke, which has now handed UVA three of its five home losses all season, did some of its damage against Cavalier relievers, O’Connor defended his bullpen.

“I had no concern with it at all,” the Virginia skipper said. “I’ve got the utmost confidence in our bullpen.”

O’Connor said the pitching plan coming into the game was to use lefty Blanco against Duke’s No. 2 hole hitter, left-handed batter Andrew Fischer, then to bring in Woolfolk to face three, four, five before going to Berry if Virginia had a lead (the Wahoos were still up 4-3 at the time).

“Unfortunately, they did a nice job against Jay with two hits, and I think Berry still managed it and gave us a chance,” O’Connor said. “Tomorrow’s key is going to be getting off to a good start.”

O’Connor said his pitching staff, including the bullpen, is a big reason why Virginia has one of the top 10 earned run averages in the country.

Virginia might be in the hole, but the coach said there’s no reason to panic.

“Our program has been in this position a handful of times,” O’Connor said. “If I recall correctly, four out of the five times we’ve made it to Omaha, it has taken three games and that’s why it’s a three-game series. So our guys will put this behind us and be realy to play at noon tomorrow.”