COLUMBIA, S.C. — When the ball left Devin Ortiz’ bat on Monday afternoon, Virginia players and coaches jumped out of the dugout, frantically looking for someone to hug.
The walk-off home run off the bat of Ortiz pushed the Cavaliers past Old Dominion and into an NCAA Super Regional for the first time since 2015. Placed in the preseason top 15 by numerous baseball publications, UVa has finally shown why they were believed to be a contender to make it to Omaha.
With the win, the Cavaliers advance to face Dallas Baptist in the Columbia Super Regional, which begins Saturday in Columbia, S.C.
Brian O’Connor’s team enters the Super Regional with tremendous confidence. The Cavaliers believe they’re among the best teams in the country, and they have good reason to feel that way after their performance in the Columbia Regional.
Here are three takeaways from the team’s run to a regional title.
Pitching depth shines
Virginia won the Columbia Regional despite losing Andrew Abbott’s start. The Cavaliers’ only prior series win this spring when losing Abbott’s start came in April against Clemson. They fell in Game 1 of the series before rattling off a pair of wins against the Tigers.
In Columbia, UVa fell to South Carolina 4-3 in Abbott’s outing. Despite losing the opening game, Virginia won four consecutive games to advance.
The success of unheralded yet talented pitchers was critical to UVa advancing.
“The quality of the depth of this pitching staff has been the best that we’ve had,” O’Connor said.
Sophomore Matt Wyatt tossed five scoreless innings in the second meeting against South Carolina, he struck out eight batters and helped Virginia win 3-2 in an elimination game. In a game later that night against Old Dominion, junior reliever Brandon Neeck struck out a career-best 16 batters in 5 2/3 innings of relief.
The left-handed pitcher wants to be a starter for UVa in the future, and he put on one heck of an audition for the role.
In the final game of the Columbia Regional on Tuesday, Ortiz started the first game of his collegiate career and threw four shutout innings, striking out a career-high six batters.
Interestingly, junior starter Mike Vasil gave up five runs in two innings of work against Jacksonville. The team’s most consistent starter at the beginning of the spring has allowed at least four runs in fewer than five innings in four of his last five starts.
“I’ll tell you what, I’ve got some tough decisions coming up,” O’Connor said. “The way some of these guys started the games for us, we’ve got a plethora of arms that this team has a tremendous amount of confidence in.”
Kyle Teel stays hot
Teel, a freshman left-handed hitter, might be the team’s most dynamic offensive option. He’s leading the team with a .321 batting average, and his eight home runs ties him for the team lead. Teel leads the Cavaliers with a .503 slugging percentage, and he’s a perfect 5-for-5 on stolen bases this spring.
In the first five games of his NCAA Tournament career, Teel hit .391 with five runs scored and three RBI. He earned a spot on the All-Columbia Regional Team for his play over the weekend.
One of Teel’s most impactful moments of the five games came Tuesday in the eighth inning, when he threw out an Old Dominion runner at home from his spot in right field to keep the team’s deficit at one run.
O’Connor wasn’t surprised to see Teel throw a strike. The freshman told O’Connor at Sunday’s team dinner he could pitch, should the bullpen run out of arms.
“If you need me, I can pitch,” O’Connor recalled Teel saying. “I’m a really good pitcher. I got a great arm and a good breaking ball, and if the situation presents itself, call on me. I’ll get them out.”
Virginia’s freshman with an oversized batting helmet and MLB dreams is supremely confident. The Cavaliers will need his defense and batting as the postseason moves forward.
If things go according to plan, they won’t need his pitching.
Back on track
Not only is Virginia in an NCAA Super Regional after a 4-12 start in ACC play, but the Cavaliers also are in their first Super Regional since 2015. Virginia won the national championship that season, and it seemed like the program would remain an elite college baseball group after the championship.
“Many of these guys that are juniors, seniors, fifth years, they committed to this team after we won a national championship … these guys believed that they could come to the University of Virginia and have those opportunities,” O’Connor said.
The last few seasons didn’t quite turn out how UVa players hoped.
After missing the NCAA Tournament in 2018 and 2019 and losing out on the opportunity in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Virginia program was failing to meet its standard from the previous decade. This year’s team has hit the mark of previous teams, once again making UVa relevant in June.
“They’ve been working,” O’Connor said. “They’ve been waiting. It hasn’t quite went our way for a couple years but they hung in there and this is the team that was able to get to an NCAA Regional and now win it, and we’ll see what happens this weekend.”