Savino’s UVA comeback trail includes Friday start against Penn

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photos: UVA Athletics

No one could be more grateful to start the opening game of the NCAA Baseball Tournament than Virginia pitcher Joe Savino.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound, right-handed grad student was named the Cavaliers’ starter for Friday’s noon game against Penn in the Charlottesville Regional (ESPN+), and UVA coach Brian O’Connor made that decision early in the week before announcing his choice on Thursday.

For Savino, he’s finally getting an opportunity he’s dreamed of since enrolling at Elon five years ago, transferring to Virginia after last season in hopes of seeing postseason action.

“It’s definitely exciting,” Savino said. “You know, the past four years, my season has really not gone past this weekend, so this is my first regional.”

Elon never made it to the NCAA Tournament, so part of Savino’s idea in transferring was to find a program that consistently made it to the postseason. He found a home at Virginia.

During fall ball, the Elon transfer was so efficient that O’Connor believed Savino was one of the Cavaliers’ top five pitchers. But he missed the first half of the season with an injury and is only now pitching his best.

“We were disappointed that he wasn’t available for us in the first half of the season,” O’Connor said. “We recruited him for a reason, because he’s pitched at a very high level and a lot of innings in college baseball. He’s had experience of pitching in the Cape Cod League and he came here for this opportunity.

“It was a big shot in the arm for us when we got him back, and his progression was very, very intentional. We could have pushed him out there maybe a little bit earlier, maybe logged more innings. That said, talking with our trainer, talking with our pitching coach, I was very clear that most importantly, we needed Joe Savino for the final stretch run.”

O’Connor was confident Virginia would be in the postseason, when pitching is even more important, so having the big righty at his disposal was crucial. The staff was careful in how they brought Savino around, and now they believe he can throw as much as they need him to.

Since returning, Savino is 2-2 in seven starts with a 3.18 ERA over 22.2 innings pitched. He has given up 21 hits and struck out 15, while walking nine batters.

Over his career at Elon, Savino made 50 appearances over 169 innings, struck out 193 and only walked 32, so he has plenty of experience heading into Friday’s game against the Quakers at Disharoon Park.

“This is my fifth year of college baseball and I’ve practically been in any role that you can be out there,” Savino said. “I mean, I’ve started games, I’ve long-relieved, I was a closing pitcher in the Cape Cod League, so I just think that experience definitely helps. Just in the back of my mind, just knowing that I’ve been there before and kind of just trusting my stuff. I’ve been there, I’ve put in the work.”

He will be facing a Penn team (24-23) that is in the NCAA regionals for the sixth consecutive year and has plenty of confidence.

“They’re not going to be in awe of being here,” O’Connor said of the Quakers. “But it’s about us playing good Virginia baseball.”

It has been a long journey for Savino, particularly battling back from injury this season.

“It felt like a longer road than it was, two-and-a-half months of really just kind of watching from the sideline,” the New Yorker said. “Just talking with Coach O’Connor and Coach Drew and the trainer, we really wanted to make it known that I would rather be pitching come this time of the year and not rush it as much.

“It was just trusting the process and a lot of patience with returning to throw, and I’m just super grateful to be back 100 percent, helping give our team a chance.”

O’Connor didn’t want to tip his hand about pitching assignments beyond Friday’s opener, pointing out “we’ll figure it out from there.”

Certainly, the UVA skipper will consider Evan Blanco and possibly Jay Woolfolk, who he would have started in the third game of the ACC Tournament had the Cavaliers gotten past Florida State. Once that game got lopsided, O’Connor chose to use Woolfolk in a relief role in order to get him some action prior to the NCAAs.