Virginia defeats third-seeded NC State behind strong pitching in ACC baseball championship

Durham, NC – Virginia ended the 2018 Atlantic Coast Conference Baseball Championship on a positive note.

The 10th-seeded Cavaliers entered Thursday’s game against third-seeded NC State knowing they had already been eliminated from title contention. That didn’t prevent them from delivering a solid all-around performance in a 4-2 win over the nationally top-five ranked Wolfpack.

Virginia (29-25) received solid pitching efforts from starter Derek Casey and reliever Bennett Sousa, played error-free in the field and pieced together just enough timely hitting to depart Durham Bulls Athletic Park victorious.

Despite the loss, NC State’s title hopes remain very much alive. The Wolfpack (40-15) faces sixth-seeded Florida State (40-17) in Friday night’s 7 p.m. Pool C game, with the winner advancing to face second-seeded Clemson or seventh-seeded Miami in Saturday’s 5 p.m. semifinal.

NC State baseball coach and players meet on the mound.(photo by Gene Galin)

Casey (7-4) worked 7.2 innings, allowing six hits and two earned runs while walking one batter and striking out nine. The nine strikeouts pushed him above the century mark for the season to 106.

Casey left the game with two outs in the bottom of the eighth after walking Josh McLain on four pitches and yielding a double to Will Wilson to put Wolfpack runners on second and third. With Virginia clinging to a 3-2 lead, Sousa came on to face No. 4 hitter Brett Kinneman, whose 17 home runs are tied for second-most in the ACC this season. Sousa proved up to the task, striking out the NC State slugger on three pitches.

The Cavaliers picked up an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth when Nate Eikhoff led off with an infield single and scored on Cayman Richardson’s one-out double. Sousa then set down the Cavaliers in order in the top of the ninth to secure his sixth save of the season.

The Wolfpack scored lone runs in the second and third innings to take an early lead. ACC Freshman of the Year Patrick Bailey sent his 11th home run of the season over the wall in right-center for the first score of the game, and Josh McLain’s liner that caromed off Casey’s leg for an infield single scored Shane Shepard from third base and made it 2-0.

Virginia tied it up in the bottom of the third, with Jake McCarthy’s RBI single and Andy Weber’s sacrifice fly accounting for the scoring. The Cavaliers went up 3-2 in the fourth when Richardson led off with a double, moved up on a groundout, and scored from third on a throwing error by Wolfpack second baseman J.T. Jarrett.

Virginia defeats NC State in 2018 ACC Baseball Championship.
photo by Gene Galin

Weber and Richardson each finished 2-for-3 for three at the plate with an RBI for Virginia, while Bailey and Shepard each collected two hits for the Wolfpack.

David Harrison (1-3), the second of six NC State pitchers, took the hard-luck loss. Harrison worked 2.1 innings, allowing two hits and striking out two batters while walking none and yielding one unearned run.

virginia vs nc state score board

Virginia post-game press conference

BRIAN O’CONNOR: I’ll be short and let these guys talk because they’ve certainly earned it over their careers. I’m just really, really proud of our guys. When we lost the game to Florida State, a tough 11-inning ballgame, we knew coming down here that our fate was in our own hands, and we needed to come out and win this tournament to have a chance to play next week, and we didn’t do that.

But I think — I’m amazed all the time when you get an opportunity to work with 18- to 23-year-old young men what they’re made of and their character, and I think today was a great example of what these guys and their teammates are made of.

The game wasn’t going to have an impact on anything other than what they stand for and the type of people they are, and certainly Derek and Bennett made a statement today for what they’re made of and the quality of their pitching ability and who they are as people, and certainly our offensive ballclub did, as well.

Really, really proud of these guys. I talked to a good friend of mine last night, and he reminded me about all the teams that finish a season with a loss, and myself, Coach Kuhn and Coach Mac have been coaches here for 15 years, and today we had an opportunity to end the season with a win, and the only other time in 15 years we did that was in 2015 when we won the national championship.

So unfortunately most of the time it does end with a loss, but certainly these guys rose up and played a great baseball game against a tremendous opponent. I really, really like NC State’s baseball team, especially offensively. They’ve got a special offensive club, and I think that speaks to how these two guys pitched and how tough they pitched them. I think these guys showed what they’re certainly capable of doing beyond here.

Q. Derek, what was your mindset coming into this game knowing what it meant, and what you felt coming off the mound for the last time?
DEREK CASEY: Yeah, I mean, there was a lot of emotion going into it. I mean, like Coach said, we needed to win that first game against Florida State to give us a chance to move on, and that didn’t happen, so I mean, we kind of knew it was the last game. We were just going to give it everything we had. When Coach K came out for that mound visit right before the last batter, he said, This is your last college batter so try to make it good. But sure enough, I gave up a double down the line. But at least we got the win.

Q. Bennett, after that eighth inning you seemed really emotional. What was that like getting the save there to finish it off?
BENNETT SOUSA: The only thing on my mind after the eighth inning was we’ve got to win this game now. I think it’s just — you know, all these guys, we worked so hard in the fall and throughout the spring, and like Coach said, to end on a win, even though it’s not where we wanted to be, you know, I think it just shows how tough this team actually is and how we kept fighting the entire season, and even though things didn’t go our way, these guys are tough guys.

Q. Jake, this has been really a bittersweet year for you. You missed so much time with the injury. What did it mean to you to get back on the field and play at the level that you have, because hitting .329 and have been a big addition to the lineup?
JAKE McCARTHY: Yeah, well, like an example, today didn’t really mean much for us going forward. Our season was going to end anyway today. But going out and the way we played and the way we approached it as a team, knowing that it was going to be our last game and we could have easily just thrown in the towel, I think that’s kind of why it was so important to me to get back.

It means a lot wearing this uniform and going out with all these guys who are my friends. Days like this I’ll remember. Going out and competing is just what I wanted to do, and I was probably out for a little longer than I hoped for, but being able to get back for these 10 days or whatever I was playing has meant the world to me. I’ll remember today for the rest of my life. It was — I had a lot of fun today, and I’m sure all these guys did, too.

Q. Derek, you mentioned the emotions that you had going off the mound for the last time. You could see on the ACC feed that they had going on, you could see everybody kind of walking up to you at the very end there. What were the emotions like from the players around you, as well, just kind of embracing you for that last start?
DEREK CASEY: Yeah, I mean, basically what Jake just said, too. 10, 20 years from now, I don’t know if you’re always going to remember the wins or losses, you’re going to remember the relationships you had with your teammates. I think that’s what I was realizing in that moment, that this could possibly be the last time I see some of these guys for a while or play on the field with them. So that’s what I was feeling.

Q. Jake, just to follow up, this is now your brother’s home ballpark; have you talked with him this week about coming back here and any exchange with him while they’re on the road this week?
JAKE McCARTHY: I was at his apartment the other day. He’s out of town, so I tried to trash it, but my dad wouldn’t let me. I’ll try to leave him a gift or something. But besides that, no, not really.

Q. Coach, just looking back at the season, how do you kind of put it into perspective? Obviously you guys had adversity that’s been well-documented and a lot of one-run losses. I’m sure you probably — you probably could envision a lot of ways this could have played out differently, but are you satisfied overall with the way this played out?
BRIAN O’CONNOR: No. You know, certainly the competitor in all of us sitting up here in no way are we satisfied with how it played out. The level of our expectation, the players that are wearing the uniform and the coaches that are running the team, we have high expectations, and when that doesn’t happen, certainly we’re frustrated at times, disappointed, trying to always figure things out.

That said, we talked a lot about — as a team as we moved along through this that we were never out of an opportunity to continue to play on. You know, those one-run games, if you flip half of those the other way, we’re playing next week, and we didn’t do that, and there was a lot of reasons behind that. But I’m proud of these guys. They kept battling. It was not easy. There were — you look at the lineup changes throughout this year, I don’t know how many different guys we played in left field. We played a shortstop that played every day there pretty much the whole year and did a really nice job in the lead-off spot when Jake went down. There were a lot of good, positive things that came from this year. Certainly the wins weren’t enough and they weren’t to the level of our expectation.

Most importantly I think what it does is it shows everybody that’s involved with our baseball program, our players, our coaches, our support staff, our administration, our fans, our donors, and anybody else in college baseball, this is the case for any team, this thing is really, really hard to do. And we had a 14-year run of going to the NCAA tournament. You can count — you know this stat. You can count the amount of programs in this country on one hand that have done that the last 14 years.

And so, you know, maybe there’s a little bit of something to this that is a lesson to everybody that it doesn’t just happen. Right, you don’t just have good players. It doesn’t just happen every year. You’ve got to be good. You’ve got to execute. You’ve got to continue to recruit. You’ve got to stay healthy. Sometimes you’ve got to get a little bit of luck, right. And there’s a lot of people in this country, as you know, that really, really care about their college baseball programs, and I know that there’s 14 of them in this league that care. And so it’s tough, and it’s a — sometimes a readjustment, right, can be a good thing. So I’m going to choose to look at it as a positive, that it gives us an opportunity to step back for a couple of months and maybe make some adjustments for us to move forward.

Q. You talked about making an adjustment. What does that entail? Do you have meetings? Do you talk about things that maybe led to where you are right now?
BRIAN O’CONNOR: Yeah, I don’t know for sure what it entails yet. You know, I’ll spend the next five — we’ll have a team meeting tomorrow and I’ll spend the next five days, I’ll have an hour, a block of time for each player that we’ll sit down and we’ll have a conversation, and most of those will be with players that will be returning, and talked to them about the path moving forward. And I’ll also really rely on these guys because they wore the uniform, they had the experience, and ask them questions and try to learn from them for us to continue to get better.

So I’m not — listen, our program is in an outstanding position. We’ve got an administration that is 100 percent fully committed to our baseball program. Not only did we do a $19 million stadium addition during this year, before this year, we’re doing more after this year. Our recruiting is in tremendous shape. We’ve got an outstanding recruiting class that is coming in to Virginia, and we’ve got some really talented young players.

And so, you know, this thing is tough, and our guys will learn from it, and we’ll get better, and I’m thankful for these guys that have had the opportunity to play here.

Q. Will you watch the NCAA tournament at all just to see what kind of goes on? Do you follow it at all?
BRIAN O’CONNOR: I don’t know. I’ll follow my friends. I mean, I’m certainly a fan of baseball. You know, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, right, and so that’s going to be at the forefront of my thoughts, but certainly I’ve got an 11 year old boy that loves college baseball, so I’m sure I’ll be watching some games with him. I’m a fan of college baseball. I hope our teams in this league play as deep as they can into this tournament.

Q. I know you’re a competitive guy. Just being in this spot, how much is this going to fuel you moving forward as you try to get this thing turned around a little bit?
BRIAN O’CONNOR: You know, I’m going to be very, very careful about saying getting it turned around. That’s what I’m talking about. I think sometimes we can get out of whack a little bit, right. I don’t want to certainly disrespect what these guys have accomplished and who they are and what great players they are.

You know, like I said, we’ll continue to assess. There is nothing wrong at all with the University of Virginia baseball program. I can assure you of that.

But certainly we’ll continue to try to make it the best that we possibly can.

NC State post-game press conference

ELLIOTT AVENT: I thought we played good tonight. I just thought we ran into a Virginia team that played very well. I mean, you saw their Florida State game Tuesday. They had so many opportunities to win that game, and you’re talking about a team — somebody told me, I don’t know if this is accurate or not, but I’ve seen them on film a lot this week, and I’ve said, that’s a good ballclub. You saw the pitching from Abbott and Lynch the other night, and then what we saw from Casey and Sousa today.

But I think they have lost like 10 one-run ACC games. That might be some kind of a record. That will drive you to do a lot of things if you’re Brian O’Connor. But they’ve got a heck of a coaching staff, they’ve got a heck of a team, and tonight they were better.

Q. Patrick, obviously for you, going up and hitting that double and then you also had the home run, for you how comfortable do you feel at the plate, obviously when you have to play a couple pretty crucial games?
PATRICK BAILEY: Yeah, I’ve been seeing them pretty well here lately. It was nice. The first at-bat, he started a lot of guys off-speed so I was just looking for something up, and he left it up there, and I was able to put a pretty good swing on it. I’ve been seeing it pretty well.

Q. Josh or Patrick, what has to improve when you look at playing Florida State tomorrow in order to advance to a semifinal?
JOSH McCLAIN: We played them last week. They threw a lot of off-speed. We’ve got to be ready to hit off-speed tomorrow night. It’s going to be a big game. It’s like — like Coach said, it’s like the third game of the super regional; you’ve got to win this game to advance so we’ve got to figure things out, go off what we did last week and get better and be ready to go tomorrow.

Q. You guys left five runners on base today in a couple key situations with runners in scoring position where you just couldn’t get that big hit. What was missing at the plate for you guys today?
JOSH McCLAIN: Like Coach says, good pitching. They had a good staff tonight. Those guys threw their best when they needed to, and it’s tough when you’re hitting against good pitching. The hits will come. They’re here and there. It was good pitching tonight. Tomorrow night might be a different scenario.

Q. Elliott, I wanted to ask you about the tournament format, if you think there’s an improvement out there, or are you happy with the way it is, considering that Duke played today, you played today in games that have no impact on whether you advance?
ELLIOTT AVENT: Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of stuff being said. I don’t know. We sit there as coaches, the ACC, all of us, we all try to figure out a scenario, and we’ve gone back and forth. I mean, the double elimination I’ve always thought was the best thing because then every game means something. You’ve got to play to advance. But then you wind up playing six or seven games, five games, whatever. You run your pitching ragged from a year that’s already been 56 games. And then you get to the regionals, got them beat up.

We tried a couple different scenarios to possibly not play so many games and use so much pitching, and this one seems kind of interesting to me. I’ll be honest with you; I kind of like this so far, and I’ve seen some people say there’s some meaningless games going on. I don’t know if I’ve ever played in a meaningless game in my life. We went out there and tried to win. If you don’t try to win at everything you do — you can’t turn a switch on and off. They talk about it as you’re going to the playoffs for professional football, and you’re going to rest this guy. I’ve seen Bill Belichick, who might be the top of his profession, and I’ve seen him play his guys getting ready, and he’s gone to a lot of Super Bowls and he’s won a couple. I don’t think you ever play a meaningless game, and I think right now we may be on to something that works pretty good. It gives the higher seeds an advantage in case you’re 1-1 to advance, and if you’re a guy like Pitt or a team like Virginia who could lose 10 one-run games this year and they almost had the Florida State game, so had they won that one and won this one, next thing you know, they may be rolling to an ACC championship, and the year they won the national title, they might have been like an 8 seed or something, I can’t remember, but I think we may be on to something here. And I don’t believe in meaningless games.

Q. Elliott, Reid Johnston ends up going less than three innings. Just wanted to ask if that was planned beforehand or if that was based off the situation.
ELLIOTT AVENT: No, that was actually not planned at all. We actually were hoping to get his pitch count up a little bit. He’s been a guy who’s pitched a lot of big games for us this year. He just — he had it in the bullpen. It’s the one time this year I’ve seen where his command just wasn’t that good. He gets by with command, kind of like Greg Maddux, and he just didn’t have his command today, so we felt like we had to get him out of there to keep the game close.

Q. I wanted to ask you your potential starter for Friday, if you have that planned at this point?
ELLIOTT AVENT: This Friday, tomorrow?

Q. Yeah.
ELLIOTT AVENT: Oh, it’s Brian Brown. I can tell you that one.

Q. Do you foresee Johnston potentially being available later in the weekend with having only thrown a couple innings today?
ELLIOTT AVENT: Haven’t got there yet. I’ll let you know when we get there.

Q. We all remember the days of double elimination and four games a day, but with the new format, did you approach this game any differently knowing in advance that Virginia would not eliminate you and that the game with Florida State meant everything? Would it have been different —
ELLIOTT AVENT: You want an honest answer?

Q. And would it have been different had Virginia won its first game and then you would have been in the same — in a position of elimination?
ELLIOTT AVENT: It would have been different, yeah. Okay, but we — it ain’t like we didn’t come out — it’s nothing like that. They beat us flat out. They just beat us. Did I do some things different? May have tweaked the lineup a little bit because I’m still trying to search some things for next week to see what’s our best lineup on the field right now against a righty, what’s our best lineup against a lefty. Bringing the infield in in the fourth inning, even though it worked out, not sure I would have done that, although I realized Casey may keep us from scoring a lot of runs today, so I may have done it. But yeah, I probably did a couple things differently, trying to figure out some stuff had this been an elimination game, but not with coming out to play. Not with the starter we used. Maybe with the bullpen we used possibly, but no. I did a couple things different.

Q. Elliott, just your thoughts on Florida State again; with a chance to go to the semis, and you’re getting that one step closer to the championship?
ELLIOTT AVENT: Yeah, I don’t know why you want that box to match so quick the last weekend. It’s really funny, you go out and you play Florida State two tough games where they have walk-offs and a dog pile at home plate, that’s tough to watch. And then you go out Saturday with high humidity, high heat, which we hadn’t seen all year, and I thought our guys may have played their best game of the year, and you’ve got to face their guy. He’s really, really good. We saw him last week, and we had a lot of trouble with him. So we’re going to have to be at our best tomorrow night. But I think what you’ve seen in our guys, if they come out, they give you not only a competitive effort, they give you a smart effort every time. We’ll be here. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but we’ll be here, and I hope it’s a fourth great game like the other three games were in Tallahassee.