UVa coach Brian O'Connor says intentionally walking UNC's Vance Honeycutt 'wasn’t an option for us' (2024)

OMAHA, Neb. — This appearance in the College World Series has started painfully similar to the last for Virginia.

“We’re disappointed. We’re frustrated,” UVa coach Brian O’Connor said after the No. 12-seeded Cavaliers suffered a demoralizing, 3-2, walk-off loss to No. 4-seed North Carolina on Friday afternoon to open action in Omaha at Charles Schwab Field. The Tar Heels won the bout on star Vance Honeycutt’s RBI single in the bottom of the ninth.

O’Connor elected to have side-arming reliever Chase Hungate pitch to Honeycutt, a projected first-round pick for this summer’s MLB Draft, with first base open and the game on the line.

Hungate, who hadn’t allowed a run in his three previous postseason outings and had already thrown one and third scoreless frames on Friday, surrendered a lead-off double to pinch hitter Jackson Van De Brake to begin the ninth. He advanced to third on Alex Madera’s sacrifice bunt before Hungate retired Colby Wilkerson on a pop up for the second out.

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UVa coach Brian O'Connor says intentionally walking UNC's Vance Honeycutt 'wasn’t an option for us' (1)

Then, Honeycutt, an All-ACC first-teamer, stepped into the box with Casey Cook — the owner three hits in the game — on deck and that’s who O’Connor said he was more concerned about.

“It was the right matchup,” O’Connor said. “I’ll tell you, Cook, I think, is their best hitter in the lineup. So, it wasn’t an option for us to [intentionally] walk Honeycutt. Honeycutt is a great player. He has a lot of home runs, but I felt we had handled him really good all day.”

Hoos starter Evan Blanco got Honeycutt out four times, leaving him hitless until his game-winner, which was lined over the outstretched reach of Cavaliers shortstop Griff O’Ferrall to score Van De Brake.

“Honestly, with two outs, I was just trying to attack [Honeycutt] in any way that I could,” Hungate said outside UVa’s locker room as his voice started to trail off, “but I didn’t execute exactly how I wanted and he put a good swing on it.”

Said Carolina coach Scott Forbes about Honeycutt, who smacked a walk-off homer in the Chapel Hill Super Regional against West Virginia: “He’s also shown in his career that he enjoys the big moment. He invites the big moment.”

So, UNC (48-14) advances to the winner’s bracket contest while UVa (46-16) will play in an elimination bout on Sunday against either top-seeded Tennessee or No. 8-seed Florida State. The Cavaliers were eliminated in only two games in the 2023 College World Series after they were walked off in their first game against Florida.

An early exit this year is exactly what UVa veteran right fielder Casey Saucke said he and his teammates are trying to avoid.

“It’s tough,” Saucke, who was 1-for-3 with a double, two walks and a stolen base, said. “We got walked off last year and walked off this year, and both in the first game. But all we can do is win the next game. That’s really it and we’re going to bounce back on Sunday and give it our all.”

This season, the Hoos have usually returned to form after a loss. They only dropped two games in a row once this year and that was in March at Miami.

“We’ve been super consistent,” Saucke said. “Obviously, our bats have been consistent every day. You don’t see us scoring only two runs in a game very often, so we’ve got to get the bats going and support our pitchers a little bit.”

UVa coach Brian O'Connor says intentionally walking UNC's Vance Honeycutt 'wasn’t an option for us' (2)

And more so than Carolina’s standouts Honeycutt and Cook coming through in clutch moments, the Cavaliers said the bigger problem was their own normally-dependable offense on Friday.

UVa left 10 men on base and were shutout over the final 3.1 innings by Tar Heels reliever Dalton Pence when the Cavaliers had opportunities to grow their advantage or break the 2-2 tie after UNC tied it on Cook’s RBI single in the home seventh that ended Blanco’s outing.

He was as good against the Tar Heels, too, as he was in the regular season.

Friday marked the second straight postseason outing for Blanco in which he worked into the seventh inning. He earned a win against Kansas State in Game 1 of the Charlottesville Super Regional, which was his seventh start in 10 the last outings that lasted at least six innings. And that stretch began with 6.1 innings of two-run ball against the same Tar Heels in April.

The left-hander overcame falling behind by a run in the first winning by rattling off five straight scoreless innings improving as the contest went on. He didn’t record a 1-2-3 frame until the sixth inning when he plowed through Carolina’s 5-6-7 hitters before striking out slugging designated hitter Alberto Osuna for the third time in the game.

“I felt I settled in well,” Blanco said. “Even the first two, three innings I didn’t feel I had my best stuff. Then I finally hit a groove, but kind of lost it in the back half of the game.”

In the seventh with UVa clinging to a 2-1 lead, Blanco retired Honeycutt for the fourth time by getting him to ground out for the second out. But Cook delivered with the game-tying base hit in the next at-bat.

UVa coach Brian O'Connor says intentionally walking UNC's Vance Honeycutt 'wasn’t an option for us' (3)

O’Connor said the left-on-left matchup with Blanco was the correct one and that he deserved the chance to get through the seventh inning.

“There was no way I was not going to take Evan Blanco out of the game to face Cook,” O’Connor said. “I know he had two hits off of him, but Evan Blanco is our guy. And he had earned that opportunity.”

Meanwhile, Pence had gained momentum and did not let it go.

He entered behind fellow reliever Matt Poston once Poston gave up the lead in the sixth. O’Ferrall’s sacrifice fly to center sent Henry Godbout home with the go-ahead run. Godbout started that sixth with a walk and got to third on Eric Becker’s opposite-field double scorched into the left-field corner.

Pence got Ethan Anderson to ground out, though, to halt the threat without further damage. Pence retired 10 of the 11 hitters he faced.

“He’s got a really good high-spin fastball,” O’Ferrall said about Pence.

Said Saucke: “He’s a great pitcher and they have a great team overall. He got in a good rhythm and he was getting outs for them. We were trying to put the ball in play and hit it hard and get guys on, but he was really effective.”

Pence (5-1) earned the win and Hungate (7-2) took loss. But, having thrown 7.2 scoreless innings in the postseason prior to Friday’s ninth inning, he said he still has his confidence and thinks the Hoos can find a way to win on Sunday.

“I believe in this team,” Hungate said, “and regardless of what happened, I think we’re going to make it past Sunday because we have a great team. The other teams are great, too, but after a tough loss like that, I think we’re going to bounce back.”

Greg Madia


@GregMadia on X


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UVa coach Brian O'Connor says intentionally walking UNC's Vance Honeycutt 'wasn’t an option for us' (2024)
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