By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — His first significant test as a college pitcher came April 27, when Coastal Carolina visited Davenport Field for an eagerly awaited clash between teams ranked among the nation’s top 10 by Baseball America.
UVa freshman Branden Kline helped end the Chanticleers’ 17-game winning streak that night. The 6-3 right-hander from Frederick, Md., scattered four hits, struck out four and walked only one in five innings, earning the victory as Virginia beat Coastal 6-3.
That bolstered Cavaliers coach Brian O’Connor confidence in Kline, a sixth-round pick in last year’s major-league draft. So did Kline’s performance about four weeks later against then-No. 14 Miami at Coral Gables, Fla.
“When you go through a season as a coach, you plan on things that potentially could happen down the road, and this is why a Branden Kline gets a start against Coastal Carolina,” O’Connor said Monday. “This is why Branden Kline starts Game 1 at Miami when we go down there.
“You get an opportunity to see what somebody’s capable of, against a really good club, knowing that you potentially could be in a Game 4 in a regional, and you try to find what a kid’s about and whether he can handle that.
“Pitching against Coastal Carolina at home is a pressure situation. Pitching at Miami in Game 1, when you have to win a game to win the [ACC’s] regular-season title, and the kid goes out there and throws five great innings, gives me confidence in what he’s capable of doing on a night like he did tonight.”
O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn met late Sunday night, after UVa’s loss to St. John’s, to decide who would start Monday night in the deciding game of the NCAA regional at Davenport.
The choice was easy, O’Connor said. Kline had the freshest arm of any realistic option on the UVa staff — he’d thrown only 43 pitches in three strong innings of relief Saturday against Mississippi — and had shown that the big stage didn’t rattle him.
So the coaching staff handed the ball to Kline in what might have been Virginia’s final game of the season, and he responded with another gem. He went 5 ⅓ innings before giving way to Kevin Arico, who did the rest in the Wahoos’ 5-3 win over the Red Storm.
Against one of the nation’s top offenses, Kline surrendered six hits — two in the sixth inning after starting to fade — struck out five, allowed three runs and walked only one. He collected the victory to improve to 5-0 as a Cavalier.
“For a freshman I thought his composure was good,” St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer said.
“Our plan was good, but what impressed me the most about him was, he seemed to have his breaking ball, and after a couple innings he had better command of it. Then he got a little tired at the end, but I thought he did a wonderful job.”
Of starting such a pivotal game, Kline said Monday night, “Today I really wasn’t nervous about it. I think the most nervous I got was [Sunday], just not knowing if I was going to be used or not. But as soon as I let go of the first pitch in today’s game, all nerves went away, and I just had to go out and compete.”
Virginia, the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, hosts Oklahoma in a best-of-three super regional that begins Saturday afternoon at Davenport Field. Sophomore left-hander Danny Hultzen and junior right-hander Robert Morey are likely to start the Cavaliers’ first two games.
COOL CATS: In each of the first three regionals held at Davenport Field — in 2004, ’06 and ’07 — UVa failed to advance past the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend.
In 2008, Virginia was ousted in Fullerton, Calif. The Cavaliers proved in 2009 that they could win a regional, prevailing at Irvine, Calif., but a hole remained in their postseason résumé until Monday night.
Still, O’Connor said afterward, he didn’t worry that hosting the regional would be a burden for his team.
“I think there’s only two players that are wearing our uniform that actually played in a regional here in Charlottesville,” O’Connor said. “So these guys don’t know. They were in high school. I think every season’s a new season, and this has been a very loose but confident bunch.
“I gotta tell you, I probably felt the pressure more than the players did. I looked at their faces when they came in the clubhouse today, and there was nothing but confidence. I probably had to talk to them before [batting practice] more for me than for them.”
Junior reliever Kevin Arico said: “I wouldn’t really say there’s much pressure. We’re a really relaxed group of guys. We’re always playing loose, we never really press or do much of any of that. I’m just glad we could do it for the fans at home. The environment they put out for us the entire regional is amazing.”
ALMOST PERFECT: In four games in the regional, UVa committed one error, and that occurred Friday in a 15-4 rout of VCU.
“Being able to have a very athletic defense definitely takes a lot of pressure [off the pitchers],” Kline said, “knowing we’re not always going to hit our spots, but if we do miss occasionally, the players in the outfield or in the infield have the ability to track it down.”
Later Monday night, O’Connor was asked about his team’s play in the field.
“Our defense, not only tonight but all weekend, was really spectacular,” he said. “That defense is what shows up every game, and that defense can help you win championships. We’re going to get clutch hits, we’re going to get opportunities, we’re going to pitch well, but that defense that shows up every day, that can win you ball games. It keeps you in ball games, and tonight I think it helped us win a ball game.
“Think about those sliders in the dirt that [catcher] Franco Valdes blocked. Those are tough pitches to block, and he was on every one of them. [If Valdes is not, then all] of the sudden one of those balls kicks to the side, and they advance an extra base or they get a runner on first because of it.”
LOST OPPORTUNITY: Keith Werman led off UVa’s seventh Monday night with a single, and Dan Grovatt and Steven Proscia followed suit to load the bases with none out.
That brought up Jarrett Parker, who’s tied with Proscia for the team lead in home runs and also leads the Cavaliers in triples.
Parker got Werman home with a sacrifice fly, stretching Virginia’s lead to 5-3. But with a chance to break the game open, the ‘Hoos went down quietly as John Hicks, one of the team’s sluggers, hit into a double play.
“That was tough,” O’Connor said. “But I had a great feeling about our team tonight, that no matter what happened we would find a way. Now, moving forward, hopefully we capitalize and maybe get an extra run in that situation, but hey, we did what we had to do to win tonight, and maybe next time John Hicks or Jarrett Parker will hit a ball in the gap and give us a little more separation.”
OH, BROTHER: In June 2005, at the NCAA regional in Corvallis, Ore., St. John’s beat UVa 5-3. The winning pitcher in that game was Craig Hansen, who struck out eight in seven innings.
Five years later, Hansen’s brother, Kyle, started for St. John’s against Virginia in the deciding game of the Charlottesville regional.
“That’s unique,” Kyle Hansen said after the Red Storm’s 5-3 loss. “He’s got the upper hand on me, though.”
The younger Hansen, a 6-7 freshman, took the loss Monday night. He allowed six hits and four runs in 3 ⅓ innings.