By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The NCAA baseball tournament began Friday afternoon at Davenport Field, and late-arriving fans missed a first inning in which UVa right-hander Will Roberts struck out the first two batters he faced.
No matter. There was plenty more of that from Roberts on this sparkling spring day. In his first NCAA tournament appearance, the 6-4, 205-pound junior fanned 14 — four more than his previous his career high — scattered four hits and walked none as Virginia blanked Navy 6-0 before a festive crowd of 4,749.
“Today was a great day for baseball in Charlottesville,” Cavaliers coach Brian O’Connor said.
UVa (50-9) led 2-0 after the first inning and 4-0 after the third. By the middle of the game, with Roberts seemingly growing stronger each inning, the question was not whether Patriot League champion Navy would lose, but what the final margin would be.
“Will Roberts was not going to let us get back in the game,” Navy coach Paul Kostacopoulus said.
Roberts went nine innings for the second time this season. The first was March 29, the night he threw a percent game against George Washington at Davenport Field. He wasn’t flawless Friday, but the stakes were considerably higher, and the Midshipmen never came close to figuring out Roberts. He retired the final 17 batters he faced.
“It’s really something special to me,” Roberts said, “just because of how frustrating my two first years have been. I’m glad that [the coaching staff] had the confidence in me just to keep going, because I know we have a lot of good arms behind me. I think it’s a big thing that I was able to go the whole game and save our bullpen, because you really never know what’s going to happen the rest of the weekend.”
O’Connor said: “I don’t think you can draw it up as good as it worked out for us. For Will Roberts in the opening game to go out and throw a complete game is huge. You never know what situation you’re going to be in, in a tournament like this, and pitching depth is very, very important to win this. The fact that Will was able to go out there and give us nine innings maybe will factor in at some point in this tournament.”
Virginia, the No. 1 seed in this double-elimination regional, meets No. 3 seed St. John’s (36-20) at 6 p.m. Saturday. A year ago, the Cavaliers beat the Red Storm in the championship game of the Charlottesville regional.
No. 4 seed Navy (33-24-1) faces No. 2 East Carolina (39-20) in an elimination game at 1 p.m. St. John’s defeated ECU 2-0 in Friday’s second game at Davenport.
Junior left-hander Danny Hultzen, the ACC pitcher of the year in 2009 and again this season, will start Saturday night for the Wahoos. Hultzen punished Navy with his bat Friday, going 3 for 4 with three RBI.
Each of Virginia’s first four runs came with two outs. Hultzen drove in the first two with a first-inning triple.
“It was good to get the momentum on our side right away, get Will some run support right out of the gate,” Hultzen said, “and he did a great job, throwing up zeros all day.”
It’s been a remarkable season for Roberts, who entered the NCAA tournament with a 10-1 record and a 1.78 earned-run average. A graduate of the academically elite Maggie Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, he had a solid freshman season but struggled with his control in 2010. In neither season did he pitch in the NCAA tourney.
“It’s really been a complete transformation for Will Roberts,” O’Connor said.
“We really felt that he was somebody coming out of high school that really had a bright future. Obviously, he’s 6-foot-4, he’s a big, strong kid, he’s got a good arm. But the reason we recruited him out of high school is he had impeccable command. He could always throw the ball where he wanted to. He showed really good flashes of that at times his freshman year, and even early on in his sophomore year.”
Roberts played in the storied Cape Cod League last summer and returned to UVa a different pitcher. He’s throwing the ball harder and with better command. In 95 innings this season, Roberts has walked only 12.
“I think what happened is, he went away last summer, and he just put his mind to it that he was going to come back and put it all together and show everybody what he’s capable of doing,” O’Connor said. “So it doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s having the success that he is. Because this kid’s a bright, intelligent kid. He graduated from UVa in three years. That’s pretty impressive.
“I knew all along that at some point it would all come together for him. I was hoping it would be in our uniform and not the next level of baseball.”
UVa totaled 10 hits against Navy, with most coming from Hultzen, sophomore shortstop Chris Taylor (2 for 4) and junior catcher John Hicks (2 for 4). Hicks tied classmate Steven Proscia for the team lead in home runs with his seventh of the season — a solo shot that hit the foul pole in the seventh inning.
“I was hoping it would stay fair,” Hicks said, “and luckily it did.”
The homer was only the 21st of the season for the ‘Hoos. They belted three in a 7-2 win over Florida State in the ACC championship game last weekend, but O’Connor knows not to expect that every time out.
“From an offensive standpoint, this is how we’ve won most of our games this year,” O’Connor said Friday. “We got some guys on, got ’em over and got some big, clutch hits. We haven’t been a team that’s relied on the long ball.
“We’ve got 50 wins at this point because we’ve had great pitching, played great defense. And you do those two things, it gives you a chance to win.”
This marks the second straight season — and only the second time in school history — that UVa has reached the 50-win mark.
“I think it’s a heck of an accomplishment, to be 50-9,” O’Connor said. “I don’t know that anybody cares about it right now. Everybody cares about playing a good ball game [Saturday] night. I think that’s for later down the road, next year and in the future, to look at and be proud of how many games you won in a year.
“Nobody’s going to care about it if we don’t continue to win the rest of the weekend. But it’s pretty special.”
On Friday, so was Roberts.
“It was awesome,” Hultzen said. “It was a lot of fun to watch.”