The adaptability Virginia freshman right-hander Jack O’Connor displayed on Wednesday afternoon is exactly the kind of flexibility the Cavaliers need from their entire pitching staff during the final two ACC series of the regular season and into the postseason.
O’Connor was efficient in his first appearance as a reliever for the Hoos, and he said it was his first time pitching out the bullpen since an outing in relief for Team USA’s 18U squad in the fall of 2021.
He needed only 34 pitches to get through three innings versus Radford, striking out five of the eight batters he faced to earn the win.
Up until Wednesday, O’Connor had exclusively served as UVa’s Sunday starter.
“An issue for me recently has been filling up the [strike] zone,” O’Connor said, “so coming out here … my goal was to fill up the zone, especially the bottom part of the zone, and get after it in that sense.”
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His fastball reached 93 mph, his slider was tight and his curveball caught a Highlanders hitter looking to end the third inning, in which O’Connor struck out the side.
“He put up zeroes after we scored runs,” UVa coach Brian O’Connor said. “And that’s something that we talk about from a momentum standpoint is a shutdown inning after we score, so I thought he looked great. We’ll see what this weekend brings us, but I thought he looked really, really good.”
No. 21 UVa (38-11, 13-11 ACC) welcomes Louisville (29-19, 9-15 ACC) to Disharoon Park for a crucial three-game series beginning Friday, and it’s likely Jack O’Connor and a few of the other Cavaliers’ pitchers find themselves in varying responsibilities from what they’re accustomed to. The Hoos used seven pitchers on Wednesday including usual Friday starter Brian Edgington for an inning in relief behind midweek starter Connelly Early, who only logged one inning against Radford.
Brian O’Connor said right-hander Nick Parker (4-0, 4.53 ERA), mostly a Saturday starter this season, will be bumped up and pitch in the series opener against the Cardinals on Friday. As of Wednesday afternoon, O’Connor said he and his staff hadn’t decided on who’d start Saturday and Sunday yet.
Some options include Edgington, Early, Jack O’Connor and Jake Berry.
“We’re going to do some things pitching wise that we haven’t done all year,” Brian O’Connor said, “for the approach to take it one game at a time and try to win the game in front of us. So, that’s what you do during NCAA Tournament time. You put guys in the bullpen that may have started and you just kind of see how the weekend goes and put yourself in the best position to win the game in front of you and that’s the scenario we’re in.”
With only six games left and all six contests coming against ACC competition, each one is critical, especially if UVa wants to increase its chances at hosting a regional.
“I would assume,” there’s still work to do, third baseman Jake Gelof said. “I don’t really pay attention to full-in that we need this or we need that. I just go out there and try to win the ballgames.”
Currently, projections differ. D1Baseball has UVa traveling as a No. 2 seed in the Storrs Regional at UConn, while Baseball America has the Hoos as a No. 1-seed, No. 10 overall-seed and hosting the Charlottesville Regional.
“That’s in the background and certainly you don’t play for that,” Brian O’Connor said. “That’s an added bonus if you do play well, and we know the situation we’re in.”
Neither publication has Louisville reaching the NCAA Tournament. And though the Cardinals have dropped four straight games and their last four ACC series, they have the attention of the Cavaliers.
With a series win at UVa, Louisville would better its chances of getting into the 64-team field.
Gelof peeked ahead earlier this week, and said he watched Louisville’s non-conference tilt with Vanderbilt on Tuesday. The Cardinals have played plenty of quality foes this spring, having beaten Texas A&M and TCU when those programs were ranked earlier this season. They swept Boston College in early April and logged wins more recently against Kentucky and Miami.
Louisville’s Friday and Saturday starters, Ryan Hawks and Carson Liggett, are a combined 12-2. Hawks has 76 strikeouts in 68.2 innings and Liggett boasts a stingy 2.31 ERA.
“We take it the same as we do every other week,” Jack O’Connor said when asked about the pressure of needing wins in order to host a regional. “It’s we’re coming out here and doing what we try to do, and we come out here and try to win a game every time. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. It doesn’t matter what our record is or anything like that. We’re just going to play our game.”
O’Connor said he’s absorbed that much during his debut campaign with the Cavaliers. The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder goes into the weekend with a 5-3 ledger to go along with his 4.02 ERA.
“I’ve learned how to pitch a lot more in terms of not just going out there and throwing the ball,” O’Connor said. “It’s really executing and trusting myself a little more. I came here and focused a little too much on what the guys in the [batter’s] box are doing, but I’ve come to realize that if I execute what I can do and I execute my pitches, then I’m going to win because that’s the standard I hold myself to and the standard we hold ourselves to in this program.”
He said that’ll be his approach — whether he starts or enters from the bullpen — against the Cardinals.