Woolfolk’s journey filled with doubts, tears, celebrations

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photos: UVA Athletics

The road to glory for Jay Woolfolk this season was filled with landmines, but the junior right-hander fought through adversity leaning on his coaches, teammates, family and his faith to reach the pitcher’s mound in Omaha.

Woolfolk will be Virginia’s starting pitcher in the Cavaliers’ do-or-die game against familiar rival Florida State in Sunday’s 2-p.m. (ET) elimination game at the College World Series. The Chesterfield native is keenly aware of the trust UVA’s coaches have put in him for this critical moment.

Beginning the season as one of Virginia’s starters, Woolfolk was roughed up in some assignments during early spring, and as a result, relegated to the bullpen. Pitching from the pen, he worked 24.2 innings and accumulated a 5.84 ERA, walked 20 batters and wondered what his future might hold.

After all, he had given up football the summer before in order to focus his athletic skills on baseball, where he believed he would have a professional career lying ahead. Even though he never second-guessed his decision to give up his quarterback role for UVA football, he must have wondered if he could meet his own expectations on the mound.

The low point arrived unexpectedly on April 30 at The Diamond in Richmond against VCU. After cruising through the first inning, Woolfolk felt everything was under control and that he would finish the game and turn his season around.

BOOM. VCU loads the bases and then clears them with a grand slam home run. Coach Brian O’Connor had no choice but to give Woolfolk the hook.

“That was my low point,” Woolfolk said a few days ago after a practice session. “I was just like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I was lost, stuck in a hole.”

The good news was, no one gave up on Jay Woolfolk, including himself. Teammates rallied around him, boosted his confidence. So did coaches and family.

“With God and those kind of people in your life, you can get out of any situation,” Woolfolk said.

From bottoming out, fast forward to the last two weekends of Virginia baseball, an NCAA regional championship over Mississippi State and a Super Regional title over Kansas State at UVA’s sold-out Disharoon Park. In both games, O’Connor put the ball in Woolfolk’s palm for deciding games, and this time, the guy who was lost, the guy who watched a grand salami sail over the fence in Richmond, delivered big time.

Woolfolk beat Mississippi State and then sent Kansas State packing.

The 6,000 fans at “The Dish,” gave him a standing ovation.

The former Benedictine star was so numb from his success that it was difficult for him to react to the moment.

“To be honest, when I was walking off the field, I was still filled with a lot of adrenaline, so I didn’t hear nobody, honestly,” Woolfolk said. “When I got back to my house after the game, I shed a tear because I don’t think a lot of people expected that from me.

“It was heartwarming to see, that they saw that this is the real Jay Woolfolk. This is how I should have been all year. I’m not faulting anybody for not expecting it, but it was just heartwarming to see that the fans still believed in me, that the coaches still believed in me, to throw me out there in that type of situation … that my teammates still believed in me, that I could still go out there and do it.”

Against Mississippi State, Woolfolk pitched eight innings and gave up only two runs, eight hits, walked only one and struck out seven. In the win over K-State, he went 6.1, scattered six hits, gave up three runs, walked two and fanned seven.

With those two wins behind him, scouts had to be impressed. Perhaps now he had matured into the pitcher everyone expected. He had already elevated himself above a lot of hurlers because of his velocity alone. There’s not a lot of guys who can throw at 95 mph.

The 21-year-old has a two-seam fastball clocked on average 91-95, reaching up to 97, with a mid-80s slider and a good change-up.

A couple of weeks ago, Woolfolk said that throughout the rough spots this season, he believed he was just “one pitch” away from success and disaster, something he has tried to overcome.

“It comes down to trusting your stuff,” the righty said. “At some points during the year when I didn’t make that big pitch that I needed to, sometimes I didn’t trust that pitch and I still threw it. In college baseball, in the leagues that are really competitive, especially in a league like the ACC, when you’re not throwing everything with conviction, that’s when you really get beat the most.

“Like I said, I was always one pitch away, and that one pitch messed up the whole entire outing.”

However, the Virginia pitcher found himself in jams against both Mississippi State and Kansas State, but dug down deep, perhaps determined to trust his stuff and not make a one-pitch mistake, and pitched his way out of trouble.

“Against Mississippi State, when I was in some jams and making those big pitches, it was about executing and trusting what Drew calls,” Woolfolk said.

Drew is UVA pitching coach Drew Dickinson.

“Drew does a lot of stuff off the field and people don’t really realize it. He studies teams, he studies hitters. He even studies swings. So when you have a coach like that, and you trust yourself, it’s kind of easy to go out there, execute and compete.”

Woolfolk’s odyssey has seen it all, from the point to where he was so frustrated with results that he approached O’Connor and asked, “Can I just close the game sometime?”

The coach wouldn’t allow him to give up on himself or his dreams.

“I asked him that and Coach looked at me and told me it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Woolfolk said.

From the bottom of the emotional barrel, all the way to the pitcher’s mound at Charles Schwab Field in Omaha on Sunday afternoon. Woolfolk’s not done. Perhaps he’s one pitch away from greatness.