June 1, 2011

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the NCAA baseball tournament begins Friday afternoon at Davenport Field, Will Roberts will be on the pitcher’s mound for UVa.

The 6-4 right-hander figures to enjoy that view more than the one he had last year.

Virginia played seven games in the 2010 NCAA tourney. Roberts appeared in none. But after dominating as a midweek starter early this season — a stretch that included Roberts’ perfect game against George Washington on March 29 — he earned a spot in the Cavaliers’ weekend rotation.

His numbers remain dazzling. Roberts, a junior from the Richmond area, is 10-1 with a 1.78 earned-run average for UVa, which on Monday was awarded the No. 1 seed in the 64-team NCAA tournament. In the four-team regional at Davenport Field, Virginia (49-9) opens play Friday at 1 p.m. against Navy (33-23-1).

“Will Roberts has absolutely been one of the big difference-makers in our club this year,” Cavaliers coach Brian O’Connor said. “You don’t have to be a genius to figure that out, with what his record is and what he’s been pitching like for us.”

After a solid freshman season in which he walked only 12 batters in 37 innings, Roberts was less effective as a sophomore. He walked 20 in 30.2 innings last year and threw six wild pitches. He went 3-0, but batters hit .278 against him. And he had to accept a spectator’s role in the NCAA tourney for the second straight season.

“Not being in the mix near the end of the year was kind of tough for me, and I knew going into this year that I wasn’t going to let that happen again,” Roberts said in late March.

He played well in the Cape Cod League last summer, an experience that paid dividends when Roberts returned to UVa for his third year.

“Sometimes it just takes a little bit longer with some players for that light to completely come on,” O’Connor said. “His ability level hasn’t changed a whole lot. I think it finally all clicked for him, what he needed to do to be successful on a consistent basis, and I’m glad that it happened, because it’s absolutely made a difference for us.

“His command is better than it’s ever been. His aggressiveness that he pitches with is at a whole new level. Maybe sometimes it takes something like going up to the Cape Cod League, and being around a lot of great players and seeing what the level of expectation is across the country, to be a premium pitcher in college baseball. And then all of a sudden it clicks for you, and you don’t look back. Every since he arrived here in the fall, he’s been a man that’s been on a mission to prove what he’s capable of doing.”

Virginia is seeded first, naturally, in the double-elimination Charlottesville regional, and Navy is No. 4. At 6 p.m. Friday, No. 2 seed East Carolina (39-19) faces No. 3 seed St. John’s (35-20).

Friday’s losers will meet in an elimination game Saturday at 1 p.m. Friday’s winners will square off Saturday at 6 p.m.

Junior left-hander Danny Hultzen, the two-time ACC pitcher of the year, will start Saturday for the Wahoos, O’Connor said Wednesday. A decision on Virginia’s Sunday starter is still to come.

All of the Charlottesville regional games will be webcast on NCAA.com, and the NCAA asked UVa to play its opener at 1 p.m. Friday.

“It’s fine,” O’Connor said. “I’ve always believed as the host team [that it’s good] to be playing the first game of the tournament. We just need our fans to take off a half-day of work that day. There’s no question. Get the kids out of school, take a half-day at work. We need this stadium to have a great atmosphere at 1 o’clock against Navy.”

Asked if he would be granting permission for students to leave school early, O’Connor laughed.

“Yes,” he said. “I will be signing excuse forms for all children and youth in Charlottesville for Friday for a half-day. All principals out there, I’m sorry, but we’re making this a half-day UVa holiday.”

This is the fifth NCAA regional that UVa has hosted. Not until last season, though, did the ‘Hoos win a regional at home. (Virginia later lost to Oklahoma in the third game of their best-of-three super regional at Davenport Field.)

O’Connor said he has learned that “a lot of times when you host a regional, you can get distracted. Your players can, your coaches can, just because you have family in town, you’re worried about tickets. Everybody’s excited and you’re trying to please everybody. So what I’ve learned over the years is to try to simplify it as much as possible for the players. Try to get them information as early as possible. That way when it approaches game day, they can just relax and play.

“There’s an obvious advantage to playing at home, because you’re sleeping in your own bed, you know the field, you’ve got the fans behind you. But you try to streamline it and keep it as simple as possible for the players.

“That being said, there always can be, I think, added pressure when you play at home, because people just assume that you should advance on, and we have certainly learned here in Charlottesville that that’s not necessarily the case.”

As the No. 1 seed in the entire NCAA tournament, UVa will be under even more pressure this week, O’Connor knows.

“You can’t shy away from it. You need to embrace it,” he said. “We have made and set our own expectations and pressure here because of how we’ve performed on a consistent basis for many years in a row.

“That’s OK that there’s pressure. That’s OK that there’s expectations. There should be.”

The Cavaliers are coming off a terrific performance at the ACC tournament in Durham, N.C. Virginia beat Wake Forest, Miami, North Carolina and, in the championship game, Florida State to capture the ACC title for the second time in three seasons.

For a team that UNC swept in the final regular-season series, the run in Durham “was huge,” said Hultzen, who’s projected to be one of the first players picked Monday in the Major League Baseball draft.

“After that tough series at Carolina, we were all pretty upset with ourselves [about] what happened. But we just moved on from it. We got the momentum back on our side. We played good baseball this past weekend, and I think that was really important going into this regional against Navy, to have some momentum on our side.”

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