Virginia’s pitchers propel Cavaliers to NCAA opening-round win over Penn, 4-2

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Every Virginia fan already knew about the offensive firepower the Cavaliers boasted heading into Friday’s NCAA Charlottesville Regional matchup against visiting Penn. The big question mark for the postseason was whether UVA’s pitching staff could answer the bell.

If the opening game against the Quakers was any indication, then Coach Brian O’Connor must feel confident going forward after Virginia’s pitchers delivered bigtime in a 4-2 win over Penn (24-24). UVA (42-15) will take on Mississippi State in the winner’s bracket on Saturday at 6 p.m., after the Bulldogs defeated St. John’s, 5-2, on a walkoff, three-run homer in the 10th inning of Friday’s nightcap.

Grad student Joe Savino combined with reliever Chase Hungate to hurl nine innings of four-hit baseball and handcuffed Quaker batters, striking out 11 (Savino fanned 8) and walking only one. A key in mastering Penn’s batting order was silencing third baseman Wyatt Henseler, the Ivy League Player of the Year, who was held hitless and struck out three times.

“Savino gutted it out and got us through that first part of the game,” O’Connor said of his big right-handed grad student. “Hungate was fantastic, just pounded the strike zone and executed.”

Savino, 3-2 on the season, went a season-high 5.2 innings before giving way to Hungate, who required a mere 33 pitches to get the final 10 outs of the game in relief.

Virginia’s powerful lineup managed only 6 hits against a strong pitching performance from Penn starter Cole Zaffiro (6 innings, 4 hits, 4 walks, 4 strikeouts) and reliever Eli Trop (2 innings, 1 hit, 1 run).

The Cavaliers did lean on that power early in the game to take control when sophomore Henry Godbout ripped his eighth home run of the season, a three-run blast over the left-field fence and a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning. It was the 114th roundtripper of the season as UVA, which entered the weekend ranked ninth in the nation in home runs, continued to add to its single-season program record (the previous mark was 85).

O’Connor said before the regional that Penn would not be in awe of being in the field, having made it to postseason for the sixth consecutive year, and the Virginia coach was spot-on. The Quakers managed to hang with the Cavaliers, putting up two runs in the fourth inning, an RBI double by Davis Baker, followed by a two-out RBI single from Nick Spaventa, pulling Penn within a run, 3-2.

Virginia scored an insurance run in the seventh on an RBI double from Ethan Anderson, which scored Griff O’Ferrall. It was Anderson’s 20th double of the season and the 58th of his career.

“I don’t think people talk about momentum enough in baseball because it’s such a slower sport,” said Penn coach John Yurkow. “It’s not like basketball or football but it’s there, and [UVA] being able to push another run across gave them a little bit more breathing room. I thought we hung in there pretty good, I just don’t think we executed well enough.”

It wasn’t easy to execute against Virginia’s arms.

“They throw a ton of strikes,” Yurkow said. “The starter did a good job. I think he really took advantage. That was the most fastballs we’ve taken for strikes in a game since I can remember.”

Still, the Quakers made Virginia sweat a little. At one point, O’Connor and associate head coach Kevin McMullan mentioned to each other that it had been a while since the Cavaliers had been in a game like this one. Most of UVA’s contests of late have been high-scoring, so winning a tight game was viewed as a good thing.

“When you’re in a tight ballgame, it gives [players] an opportunity to bring something special out, to make that great play like [outfielder Bobby] Whalen makes (one of several fielding gems by the Cavaliers on the day), or to make good pitches like Hungate does, because when it’s a one- or two-run game, the margin for error is very small and sometimes it’s just one step,” O’Connor pointed out.

“Sometimes it’s just one step, that quick first step of Whalen in the outfield, to be able to go and get that ball. As a coach, as a manager, you love those tight games because there’s decisions that come into play that you all [media] question. My job is to look forward to making those decisions. I don’t shy away from it all. It’s one of the reasons that I love coaching college baseball, to be in that moment and show the strength to make a difficult decision when it has to be made.”

Penn’s Yurkow knew that it wouldn’t be easy containing Virginia’s power (the Cavaliers are ranked fourth nationally in hits and in the top 10 of seven other offensive categories), but credited his pitchers for keeping things close.

“I thought they made pitches when they had to and gave us a chance today,” the Quakers coach said. “When you really look at UVA’s lineup, I mean they’re hitting .340 as a team and everybody in the lineup can drive a ball and hit a home run when they need to. I don’t know how many teams recently have kept them under five runs.”

The answer is very few. Since the end of March, only eight opponents have contained the Cavaliers to five runs or less, and three of those were against Boston College in a three-game set that saw UVA score a collective 10 runs and won two of those contests, 4-3 and 4-0.

Griff O’Ferrall was the only Cavalier with multiple hits in Friday’s win over Penn, going 2 for 5.