Virginia only has seven more contests remaining in its regular season, but Wednesday’s survival against James Madison pushed one issue the Hoos are still sorting through to the forefront.
The Cavaliers’ bullpen surrendered eight runs over the final three innings and nearly blew the ballgame in which UVa once led 8-0.
“It hasn’t been as consistent as you wanted it to be,” Cavaliers skipper Brian O’Connor said afterward.
“It’s been a little bit of a challenge finding exactly who fits what role,” he said, “because there’s been so many times when they’ve pitched well and then not so good at times.”
O’Connor’s assessment is precise.
Over the last two to three weeks, each of UVa’s nine regularly used relievers — Jay Woolfolk, Jake Berry, Evan Blanco, Angelo Tonas, Kevin Jaxel, Bradley Hodges, Cullen McKay, Chase Hungate and Jake Hodorovich — have been responsible for excellent outings to help the Cavaliers, but also detrimental ones that hinder their chance to win. Take the three who pitched on Wednesday.
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Woolfolk, the steadiest of the bunch, gave up two runs in the ninth inning against the Dukes before recording his team-leading seventh save. Blanco allowed a two-run homer into the left-field bleachers that narrowed UVa’s advantage to 9-6 in the eighth and Hungate’s three runs yielded in the seventh enabled JMU to get on the board.
But just last week, Blanco, a freshman left-hander, provided a combined 4.1 innings of one-run ball (the one run allowed was unearned) over appearances against Liberty and Duke. He struck out five of the six hitters he faced against the Flames while displaying the high-level talent he has.
Woolfolk’s .172 batting average against is the lowest on the team, and of his 21 appearances — tied for the sixth most in the ACC — he’s only allowed an earned run in five of them. Hungate has been more up and down, having allowed seven runs over his last two-thirds of an inning, but had scoreless work in three of his previous four outings.
“You also have to remember, these guys pitching out of the bullpen,” O’Connor said, “a lot of them have made over 17 appearances and that’s quite a bit. We’ve relied on them a lot and that’s because in certain times over the last three weeks, some of our starting pitching performances haven’t went past the fifth or sixth inning. So, they’re being used quite a bit. Kevin Jaxel, Blanco, those guys have been used a ton up until this point.”
O’Connor said he’s hoping the week-long break for final exams lets the Cavaliers’ core of relievers rest their arms and refuel for their non-conference finale, last two ACC series of the campaign and the postseason.
He also said, “hopefully we can digest this and put a good plan together,” for the last part of the campaign, noting he may shift some roles around.
Berry started this past Tuesday’s game against VCU and could be viewed as an option to start games moving forward because of the postseason experience he gained last year. That would remove one of the Cavaliers’ more reliable bullpen options, though, they might add one because of the way the schedule lines up.
Wednesday’s starter, Connelly Early, who thrived as the midweek starter all spring and threw six scoreless innings with six strikeouts against the Dukes to improve to 9-1 with a 2.89 on the year, will have his role change because of the schedule.
This coming Wednesday’s contest against Radford is the Cavaliers’ last midweek game.
“He’s done a tremendous job for us midweek,” O’Connor said, “and it forces me as a coach to look at it and say, ‘Do we need to look at doing something on weekends because he’s pitching so well?’ And after we get through the Radford game on Wednesday, it’s all ACC play beyond that. Potentially, whether he pitches out of the bullpen or starts for us, I think it’s going to strengthen our pitching staff a little bit.”
Early said he’ll be eager to do whatever O’Connor thinks will help the team and believes he could find success in relief.
The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder is tied for the ACC’s lead in wins and his 25 batters struck out looking are the second most in the conference. His 63 total strikeouts are the ninth most in the league.
“I like to stick to my routines in the midweek games,” Early said, “but whenever my name is called I’m ready to be there. So, hopefully, I’ll get some opportunity out of the ‘pen later on, but that should be interesting to see.”
Cavaliers center fielder Ethan O’Donnell said the Hoos trust Early, an Army transfer, after what he meant to them in non-conference, midweek games throughout the year.
“He manages a good game, takes care of the ball and it’s fun to play defense behind him because you know he’ll be in every single count,” O’Donnell said. “And he’s a phenomenal kid and he gets the job done on the mound.”