Woolfolk spectacular as Virginia romps past Bulldogs for NCAA Regional crown

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photos: UVA Athletics

As the night wore on and Jay Woolfolk’s pitch count mounted, Virginia coach Brian O’Connor hearkened back to a lesson learned against Mississippi State in the 2021 College World Series.

In that trip to Omaha, O’Connor said he made a crucial mistake by pulling pitcher Griff McGarry because of the pitch count and Mississippi State went on to score five runs and won the pivotal game.

Fast forward to Sunday night’s game against Mississippi State in the championship of the NCAA Charlottesville Regional, and Woolfolk, who has had a bumpy ride for much of his junior campaign, was seemingly still in full control deep into the contest.

O’Connor let him be. Woolfolk delivered.

In what turned out to be the longest performance of the junior right-hander’s career, Woolfolk more than answered the bell, handcuffing Mississippi State’s explosive batting order and propelling Virginia to a 9-2 victory, sending the Bulldogs back to Starkville empty-handed.

With the win, UVA will advance to the NCAA Super Regionals for the ninth time in the last 15 years, thanks in part to higher-seeded Arkansas (No. 5) getting eliminated in its home regional by Southeast Missouri. The Cavaliers have to await official word from the NCAA on whether they will now host the Super Regionals against unseeded Kansas State.

Woolfolk pitched superbly for eight innings (103 pitches), scattering eight hits, striking out seven Bulldogs and walking only one, in addition to picking off a key Mississippi State base runner at second for the second out of the sixth inning.

Prior to Sunday, Woolfolk, a 6-foot right-hander from Chesterfield, had only pitched past 4.1 innings once all season, a six-inning performance against UMass on March 3.

When it was over, O’Connor gushed over Woolfolk’s ability to persevere and hold onto his confidence during a roller coaster of a season.

“You give a young man like Jay Woolfolk an opportunity like he had tonight and you see what they’re made of,” UVA’s skipper said. “The outing he had was one of the best outings we’ve ever had in my 21 years at Virginia. He was phenomenal. He’s going to have that for the rest of his life.

“When his team needed him and he needed to step up, he pitched the best game that he’s pitched in our uniform in three years.”

Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis didn’t expect that type of outing from the previously inconsistent Woolfolk either.

“He commanded the ball tonight the way he hadn’t commanded it that way all year, and so you’ve gotta tip your hat to him,” Lemonis said. “He threw a slider for strikes all night long.”

The Bulldogs had their chances early against Woolfolk, having leadoff hitters reach second base, but unable to take advantage.

“[Woolfolk] made some pitches in those big moments,” Lemonis said.

Actually, it was the MSU fourth when first baseman Hunter Hines led off the inning with a double down the right-field line, but Woolfolk struck out the next batter and forced the next two Bulldogs to ground out to squelch the threat.

In the sixth, shortstop David Mershon singled up the middle, but was picked off by Woolfolk at second later in the inning, thwarting another chance for the visitors.

“I thought that was huge,” Lemonis said of the pick-off. “We had an opportunity there in a tight ball game (Virginia led 3-2 at the time). It was tit-for-tat for eight-and-a-half innings, as good a ballgame as you can be part of, and those little moments can make a difference.”

The tit-for-tat erupted in the top of the ninth with Virginia blowing the game wide open, as Mississippi State became completely unglued. UVA scored six runs with hitting only one ball out of the infield.

Mississippi State walked four batters, committed two throwing errors and threw two wild pitches during the bizarre ninth. Most of that occurred when MSU went to the bullpen and plucked southpaw Tyler Davis, a native Virginian (Newport News) and a transfer from VCU, who gave up six runs while facing only seven Cavaliers.

“Hated to have the ninth inning go the way it went,” Lemonis said. “We played pretty dang clean all year long and played games tight. It was a pretty good ball game until that point.”

The Bulldogs came apart at the seams, but all the while, Woolfolk had kept his cool. He came out for the bottom of the ninth and gave up a leadoff single, and with his pitch count truly high, O’Connor decided that was enough, as the junior raised his win-loss record to 3-1 on the season.

O’Connor and pitching coach Drew Dickinson had decided a few weeks ago that when Virginia reached the postseason, Woolfolk would be the third starter in the rotation. He had previously earned that spot early in the campaign, but has bounced around in the bullpen mostly.

UVA had planned to start him had the Cavaliers played a third game in the ACC Tournament, but when Florida State took over the second game of the event, coaches decided to get Woolfolk some action even if it was out of the bullpen in order to prepare him for the NCAAs.

“You know, Jay’s got really electric stuff,” O’Connor said Sunday night. “He had some bumps in the road this year but those bumps made him tougher and prepared him for the opportunity that he had tonight. When he managed the runners at second base and no outs, I just kept feeling that we had something special here tonight.”

The coach had several meetings in his office with Woolfolk over the course of the season, conversations about what the pitcher needed to do.

“And he took them like a man and had the right attitude and the right approach,” O’Connor said. “When somebody does that, you know it’s going to come back around. That’s why he got the ball and he showed what he’s capable of doing.”

Woolfolk talked about finally living his dream, perhaps falling short after being named a Freshman All-American by one publication, following a stellar high school career at Benedictine, after starting at quarterback as a freshman at Virginia against Notre Dame before deciding to drop the sport and focusing solely on baseball. It has been a rocky ride.

“Nothing’s really changed (over the past few weeks),” Woolfolk said Sunday night. “You know, I think I’ve always just been that one pitch [away], that one pitch that’s messed up a lot of things. So, tonight, I just didn’t make that one pitch.”