blue ridge bank

Virginia runs out of gas, loses NCAA opener to South Carolina

By Jerry Ratcliffe

andrew abbott

Andrew Abbott. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Brian O’Connor pointed out this week that Virginia’s formula for advancing in regional play over the years has been as simple as cornbread.

Good pitching, good defense and multiple players getting multiple hits has allowed the Cavaliers to move forward. A big piece of that recipe was missing on Friday when UVA dropped its opening round game of the Columbia regional in a 4-3 loss to host South Carolina.

Zack Gelof was the only Cavalier with multiple hits against a strong Gamecocks pitching staff. The junior posted three hits, including his team-high eighth home run of the season, a solo blast to right field in the top of the third that gave Virginia a 2-1 lead. Younger brother Jake Gelof homered to lead off the inning (his second roundtripper of the season) to tie the game at 1-all.

Other than the Brothers Gelof, the Cavaliers didn’t manage but three other singles.

Virginia will face the loser of Friday night’s game between No. 1 seed Old Dominion and No. 4 seed Jacksonville, at noon Saturday.

“I felt that we had some guys really rise up, certainly (Zack) Gelof had a big day with three hits,” O’Connor said afterward. “There were other guys that stepped forward and that’s what it takes this time of year. We need guys to step forward and hopefully we’ll have enough of them that do it. It’s just a matter of who has the most players that step up and do it.”

South Carolina jumped out to a 1-0 lead when designated hitter Wes Clarke hammered a two-out, solo home run off UVA ace Andrew Abbott. It was the 23rd homer of the season for Clarke, who leads the nation in that category.

Abbott, who leads the nation in strikeouts, posted six on the day as he lasted 5.2 innings, leaving with the game knotted at 3-3 after he was tagged for back-to-back ground rule doubles (one by Clarke, another by Josiah Sightler). The UVA left-hander threw 88 pitches before giving way to Kyle Whitten, who faced only two batters before being pulled in favor of junior right-hander Zach Messinger.

“I missed my spots on both pitches [on Clarke’s home run and ground rule double],” Abbott said. “He’s a great hitter, you’ve got to give him his credit. He makes you pay for mistakes, that’s what good hitters do.”

Abbott, who hadn’t given up an earned run since April 23 against Duke, gave way to Whitten. That’s when the Gamecocks took the lead for good.

Whitten inherited a baserunner, but walked his first batter, giving South Carolina runners at first and second with two outs. Colin Burgess singled to left on a 3-1 pitch, and the ball got past UVA outfielder Brendan Rivoli, as a run scored for a 4-3 Gamecocks lead.

O’Connor quickly went to Messinger, who ended the threat with runners at the corners. But the damage was done and Virginia couldn’t muster anything off Gamecock relievers Daniel Lloyd and Julian Bosnic.The Cavaliers managed to get only one runner in scoring position the remainder of the game, that coming when Zack Gelof led off the top of the seventh with a single to right and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt.

Virginia had taken a 3-1 lead in the top of the fourth when Jake Gelof walked and with some crafty base running, moved to third on Chris Newell’s single through the gap into right field. Jake scored on brother Zack’s single, beating out a misplayed ground ball by South Carolina first baseman David Mendham.

Abbott shook off the early home run and was practically untouchable until the sixth, when he walked the first batter, then promptly got the next two batters out before Clarke tagged him for the ground rule double.

Up until then, the Virginia southpaw had retired 10 Gamecocks in a row and 12 of his last 13 batters entering the sixth.

Abbott said he was not shaken by Clarke’s first blast, which got the South Carolina home crowd involved in the game.

“I mean it’s a new environment, it’s regionals and you’re trying to take it slow, enjoy what’s going on,” Abbott said. “But yeah, you’re taught as baseball players to just ignore the crowd, ignore what everybody’s yelling. You just move on and settle down for your team because they needed me to go deep in the game.”

O’Connor, whose program returned to the NCAA’s for the first time since 2017, was disappointed in dropping the opener, which dropped the Cavaliers into the loser’s bracket in the double-elimination event.

“We had our opportunities and just didn’t capitalize,” O’Connor said. “Unfortunately we’re on the wrong side of it, but we had some guys that really stepped up and did a nice job and gave us a chance to win, so we’ll see after tonight’s game who our opponent is tomorrow and what we can do to navigate through this tournament.”

O’Connor said he went with Whitten out of the bullpen because the coaching staff liked the matchup. The 6-3, righthander didn’t last long.

“He just didn’t make the pitches to both batters that he faced,” O’Connor said. “He fell behind in the count and [the batters] took advantage of it. He did a great job last week and we felt like it was a good matchup for him.”

The UVA skipper told his team in a postgame meeting in the outfield that he wanted them to keep the same mentality that they’ve had the second half of the season, and to keep fighting.

Certainly, Virginia’s collective backs are against the wall, but it’s not like the Cavaliers haven’t been there before. They are accustomed to playing under pressure. At one point this season they were a mere 4-12 in ACC play, but stormed back to make it into the conference tournament before losing in the semifinals.

“Starting tomorrow, it’s win or go home, so that said, whoever loses the winner’s bracket game tomorrow is in the same position that we’re in,” O’Connor said. “”I feel good about the depth of our pitching staff to be able to do this.”

O’Connor said he had not yet decided who Saturday’s starter would be, although there’s speculation it will be junior right-hander Mike Vasil.

The coach said he believes the team veterans will pull the Cavaliers through.

“We’re going to rely on all of them, whether it be on the mound or in the batter’s box,” O’Connor said. “We’re going to count on them to deliver for this team. I know the veterans have a lot of pride. For some of them, this will be their last opportunity to play an NCAA tournament so I think they’ll bring it tomorrow.”

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