By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Looking for Danny Hultzen on a Friday night? If it’s baseball season, you’ll find him on the mound.
UVa coach Brian O’Connor wouldn’t want Hultzen anywhere else.
“He gives you a chance to win every Friday night,” O’Connor said.
In the ACC, teams meet in three-game series that are usually played on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
“To really compete for a league championship, you have to have someone who can go out and match other teams’ Friday night starters,” O’Connor said. “Because if you’re going into every games series and you’re down one game going into Saturday, that makes it tough.”
As a freshman in 2009, Hultzen went 9-1 with a 2.17 earned-run average. The 6-3, 200-pound left-hander’s stuff may be even better this season, as fifth-ranked Florida State learned Friday night in Tallahassee.
In the first of the top-ranked Wahoos’ three games against the Seminoles, Hultzen threw six scoreless innings. He struck out six, walked none and allowed only two hits in UVa’s 5-0 win over previously unbeaten FSU.
The ‘Noles have “a lot of really good hitters,” O’Connor said, “but really great, dominating pitching always beats a great offense.”
With his gem at FSU’s Dick Howser Stadium, Hultzen improved his record to 3-1 and lowered his ERA to 1.04. The loss? That came March 5 against Wright State at Davenport Field, and not because Hultzen pitched poorly.
In seven innings, he scattered five hits, walked none, fanned nine and allowed one earned run. The Cavaliers’ offense was uncharacteristically silent, though, and Wright State pulled off a 2-1 shocker.
“That’s baseball for you,” Hultzen said. “Some days our bats aren’t going to be there. Some days our pitching’s not going to be there.”
That’s Hultzen for you. He doesn’t get too low or too high, no matter what happens on the diamond.
“I felt that way about him last year,” O’Connor said. “That’s why in a very short time we moved him to our Friday starter.
“He’s got great poise, he’s even-keeled, and nothing fazes him. That’s pretty rare for someone that young.”
The 2009 season was O’Connor’s sixth at UVa. As in each of the first five, his team advanced to the NCAA tournament. For the first time under O’Connor, though, the ‘Hoos won the ACC championship, and their postseason run carried them to Omaha, Neb., where they played in the College World Series for the first time.
Hultzen, a graduate of the prestigious St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., was instrumental in Virginia’s success. The first Cavalier to be named ACC freshman of the year, he also made the all-ACC first team (as a utility player) and the all-ACC tournament team, and Baseball America named him a third-team All-American.
When he wasn’t pitching, Hultzen usually played first base, and he hit .327, with three home runs and 37 RBI. His workload took a toll on him physically as the season went on, though, and the ‘Hoos don’t want that to happen again this year.
So Hultzen is getting more rest these days. He still occasionally plays first base, but in other games he’ll be the designated hitter, or not play at all.
He can’t tell the difference in his energy level yet, Hultzen said last week, “but I’m sure I will once the season gets on. I feel pretty good right now.”
Hultzen has struggled at the plate so far — he’s batting only .212 — but he’s confident his bat will come around. He’s not a guy who panics.
“I just go out there and play hard, play like I know I can, play the game the right way,” Hultzen said. “That’s all you can really control. Once you start to think about statistics or whatever people think about you, that’s not good.”
Hultzen added about 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason, and he’s never felt stronger. His goal this season, he said, is to be more consistent as a pitcher and a hitter.
In 2008, the Arizona Diamondbacks picked Hultzen in the 10th round of the MLB draft after a season in which he went 13-0 with a 0.74 ERA for St. Albans. As a junior he was 7-1 with a 0.35 ERA. Those are incredible numbers, but there’s more to Hultzen than his rare skill set.
“I think the thing that separates Danny from other players is that he loves to play the game,” O’Connor said. “Nothing’s beneath him. He’s a total team player. He’s always the guy running after fly balls, he’s always helping set up the field.
“He just happens to be one of the most talented players on the field.”