By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Robert Morey takes the mound for Game 2 of the NCAA super regional at Davenport Field, UVa’s baseball team will be one win from the College World Series or one loss from elimination.
Either way, the stakes will be enormous, and Morey will be asked to deliver a quality start, as he has so often for the Wahoos in the past 16 months.
After moving into the weekend rotation in April 2009, the 6-1, 185-pound right-hander from Virginia Beach showed why he’d been such a highly regarded recruit, finishing his sophomore season with a 3-0 record and a 3.33 earned-run average.
Morey beat San Diego State’s Stephen Strasburg — how many college pitchers can make that statement? — in the NCAA regional at Irvine, Calif. In his next start, Morey allowed only two hits in a five-inning no-decision against Mississippi in the super regional at Oxford.
A graduate of Cape Henry Collegiate, Morey was expected to be one of the ACC’s elite pitchers this season, and he hasn’t disappointed. He may not be the ace of UVa’s staff — sophomore left-hander Danny Hultzen was voted ACC pitcher of the year — but Morey is 9-3, with a 3.72 ERA, and was named to the all-conference second team.
Virginia (50-12), the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, is preparing to host Oklahoma (47-15) in a best-of-three super regional at Davenport Field, and Morey is scheduled to start Sunday.
Hard to believe this is the same guy who, as a freshman in 2008, had the third-highest ERA (6.51) of any UVa pitcher and did not start even a midweek game.
“I think I just had to make some adjustments coming into the college game,” Morey said the other day at Davenport, where Hultzen will start Game 1 on Saturday afternoon.
“We had some really great pitchers in front of me — Jacob Thompson, Pat McAnaney, Andrew Carraway — and I didn’t make the adjustments I needed to to fit into the role the coaches wanted me to be in, and I wasn’t as consistent as I should have been.
“I just hadn’t put everything together yet. It was really tough, but it’s one of the better things that’s happened to me in my life, I think, going through that adversity. You learn a lot through it, and you gain a lot from those experiences.”
A 29th-round draft pick of Tampa Bay coming out of high school, Morey was taken by the Florida Marlins in the fifth round Tuesday. Had you told Karl Kuhn in 2008 that Morey would be such a coveted prospect two years later, would Virginia’s pitching coach have been shocked?
“No,” Kuhn said. “He had dynamite stuff coming out of high school and he had dynamite stuff his freshman year. It wasn’t a question of whether he had ability or good stuff, it was a question of him getting adjusted.”
Some first-year pitchers — Hultzen and Thompson come to mind — make seamless transitions to college ball. But it’s not unusual for a freshman, even one as gifted as Morey, to struggle.
“Absolutely not,” Kuhn said. “There’s a big, big jump from high school to college baseball.”
The hitters are signficantly better in college, and opposing coaches have “a million different ways” to scheme against pitchers, Kuhn said.
In the summer of 2008, Morey played for the Newport (R.I.) Gulls in the New England Collegiate League.
“We had a great team there, a great bunch of guys, and I really sort of found myself there,” Morey recalled. “I brought it back in the fall, and I put myself in the hands of the coaches and let them work with me.”
Kuhn said: “He came back a confident pitcher.”
Even so, Morey didn’t begin his sophomore season as a weekend starter. His breakthrough finally came April 12, 2009, against No. 8 Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Morey wasn’t scheduled to start that day, but a rain delay had disrupted Virginia’s pitching rotation, and so Kuhn handed the ball to No. 22.
In a game that would end in a 4-4 tie, Morey allowed three hits and two runs, struck out four and walked only one in 5 ⅔ innings.
“We were looking for that shot in the arm, and he definitely took advantage of it,” Kuhn said.
Did Morey doubt that day would come for him as a Cavalier?
“I never did,” he said. “I always had a lot of confidence in myself. I knew I had the stuff. I just knew I needed to get the right opportunities and I needed to seize those opportunities. It wasn’t until halfway through my second year that I was able to be consistent, and as luck would have it, I got the right opportunities at the right time.”
And now he’s heading into what may well be his final start at Davenport Field. Morey said he’ll sit down with his parents when the season ends, “hopefully after winning a national championship,” and discuss his options.
“It’s an honor just to be drafted in the first place,” he said. “But to go from where I was to where I am now just speaks to the character of this program and what it can do for its players.”
That the draft is behind him, Morey acknowledged, is a relief. “It’s not something you think about throughout the year, but it’s there,” he said. “I think the only time I thought about it was really the day of, when I said, ‘Oh, wow, the draft’s here.’
“And now it’s done, it’s over, there’s nothing any of us can do about it. Now we’re just really excited that we’re playing at home in a super regional.”