Transition to Starter Complete, Virginia’s Abbott Dominates At CWS

Image credit: Virginia LHP Andrew Abbott (Photo courtesy of Virginia)

OMAHA – Andrew Abbott, the steady No. 1 starter in the Virginia rotation all season long, on Sunday turned in one of his best outings of the season in a 6-0 win against Tennessee at the College World Series. 

The lefthander threw six shutout innings, giving up five hits and two walks with 10 strikeouts. It was his fifth start of the season with a double-digit strikeout total, giving 162 on the season, tied with Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker for tops in the nation and six ahead of Rocker’s teammate Jack Leiter, at least until Leiter pitches Monday night. 

“Tennessee really has a special lineup, special coach,” Abbott said. “They’ve had a special year, frankly. They’re really good. They finished top five in the nation, top in the SEC. And they had a really good team coming in, so me and (pitching coach) Drew (Dickinson) sat down and developed a plan for them.”

Executing that plan to near-perfection, it was a performance that Abbott had been working toward since last summer.

One of the most dominant relief pitchers in the country during the shortened 2020 season, Abbott went undrafted last June, which was a disappointment for the lefthander and the Virginia coaching staff alike. 

“I was devastated for Andrew Abbott, I really was. I was really incredibly disappointed,” O’Connor said in September. “Sure, coming out of it, is it a positive for Virginia baseball and the 2021 team? Absolutely. I’d be crazy to say that you wouldn’t want the kid back. There was part of me that did not, either. I was crushed for the young man because I felt like his talent and his ability dictated him going in a certain area, and it didn’t work out.”

Once the page fully flipped after that disappointment, all eyes were on giving Abbott a chance to start games. Not only would it give him a chance to showcase a new side of his game to scouts, but it projected to give Virginia an experienced, talented arm to front the rotation for situations just like the one the Cavaliers faced Sunday against Tennessee. 

There was work to do in order to make the transition a success. Most obviously, he had to get stretched out to be able to get deep into games, and going hand in hand with that was developing a more varied repertoire to give hitters enough different looks to get outs second and third times through the order. 

With an improved changeup to go along with a fastball that can touch the mid 90s and a devastating curveball, he achieved the latter, which helped him achieve the former, as this was the ninth time he has thrown six or more innings in a start. 

More nuanced in the transition to becoming a starting pitcher, however, is learning how to navigate jams of your own rather than always being the guy who comes on as a reliever to clean up messes others have created. 

Sunday’s outing, on college baseball’s biggest stage in front of 22,000 fans, was a clear signal that Abbott has that part down as well. 

Tennessee’s Liam Spence led off the game with a walk and then moved to third when Max Ferguson singled. Abbott responded by striking out Jake Rucker, inducing an infield pop off the bat of Drew Gilbert and striking out Evan Russell

“So the first inning, you know, this game is a game of — it’s emotional,” O’Connor said. “And for him to show the poise, the calmness that he did in that first inning — sometimes here in Omaha, that first inning can be a difficult inning for starting pitchers. And he handled it like a champion, handled it like a winner. He continued to make pitches and was fortunate to get out of it.”

After cruising through the next three innings, he did it again in the fifth. Another walk and single, plus a sacrice bunt, had runners on second and third with one out. A lineout to a perfectly-positioned Max Cotier at second base and a groundout to Nic Kent at shortstop later, and Abbott was out of trouble. 

In the sixth, it was back-to-back singles to begin the inning, but a fielder’s choice and two strikeouts, the last of which elicited a roar from Abbott after Jordan Beck swung through his pitch, continued the Houdini act for the lefty, who at the time was working to hold on to a 1-0 lead that came on a Logan Michaels solo homer in the third inning.

Between the high strikeout total, his ability to get the Cavaliers deep into the game with a lead and the skill with which he navigated the trouble he found himself in, Sunday’s performance gave the impression that Abbott’s transition to starter is complete. Frankly, the numbers tell the story as well. In 106.2 innings, he has a 2.87 ERA and just 32 walks to go along with his 162 punchouts – numbers that made him an All-American

Once Abbott exited the game, some of the strengths that Virginia has shown often this postseason shined again. 

The offense came alive right after his exit. The Cavaliers had six hits in the top of the seventh, including four RBI singles in a row at one point to stretch the lead to 5-0. Michaels got in on the action in that inning as well, as he had one of the RBI singles on the way to a three-hit day. For a player who came into the day hitting .242 with precisely zero home runs, it was an ideal time for a breakout game. 

“How about the day that Logan Michaels had? I’m so proud of him,” O’Connor said. “To get his first home run of the year in Omaha and to get a couple of other knocks. That guy has been a rock for us in our uniform. He’s a tremendous leader.”

In the bottom of the seventh, righthander Matt Wyatt entered in relief of Abbott and continued what he did last weekend in the super regional, when he wrapped up the series against Dallas Baptist with 5.2 shutout innings of relief after throwing five scoreless innings in a start against South Carolina in the regional. 

Sunday against Tennessee, he threw three scoreless frames, punctuating his outing with a pair of strikeouts in the ninth inning. 

“This team, everybody’s a leader on this team,” Michaels said. “You can look right and left. Everybody can lead. Everybody steps up in big moments. And I think that’s why we’re playing so well. Every team here is really, really good and really talented. So it’s going to take guys on the team to step up and be leaders.”

The cliche about the College World Series is that you just want to be in position to peak around the time you arrive in Omaha. In the case of Virginia, that’s exactly what seems to be happening. 

The lineup got big contributions from unlikely sources, the bullpen has never looked better and its staff ace, who wasn’t really even supposed to be here at this point, turned in his best start of the postseason and showed the best version of himself as a dominant starting pitcher. 

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