By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — If Tyler Wilson can come close to matching the standard set by teammates Will Roberts and Danny Hultzen in the NCAA baseball regional at Davenport Field, top-seeded UVa may well have something to celebrate Sunday night.
Roberts, a junior right-hander, opened the NCAA tournament by striking out 14 and walking none in Virginia’s 6-0 win over Navy on Friday afternoon.
About 30 hours later, Hultzen struck out 12, scattered three hits and walked one as UVa moved into the championship game of this double-elimination regional with a 10-2 rout of third-seeded St. John’s.
Before an amped-up crowd of 5,050 — the largest ever to witness a game at Davenport Field — Hultzen helped Virginia (51-9) tie the school record, set last season, for victories in a season. And now Cavaliers coach Brian O’Connor will hand the ball to Wilson, a senior right-hander from the Richmond area.
At 1 p.m. Sunday, third-seeded St. John’s (36-21) meets second-seeded East Carolina (40-20) in an elimination game at Davenport. The winner will face UVa at 6 p.m.
“You don’t root for anybody [in the afternoon game],” O’Connor said Saturday night. “Both of them are really high-caliber clubs, both ECU and St. John’s. You just play whoever they tell you to play. We got a pretty good guy going, whoever we play against.”
Wilson, who was named to the All-ACC second team late last month, is 7-0 this season, with a 2.41 earned-run average. Until this year, O’Connor used him primarily as a middle reliever, but Wilson has sparkled in the Wahoos’ starting rotation.
“He has just grabbed hold of the role and done a tremendous job,” O’Connor said. “There’s been multiple times this year where we’ve lost a game when Danny has pitched, and Tyler Wilson has started the next ball game and just thrown a gem for us. It happened the Miami weekend, it happened the NC State weekend. The guy’s just risen up for our team, time and time again, and I’m glad we’re giving him the ball tomorrow night.”
A victory would send the ‘Hoos to an NCAA super regional for the third straight season. A loss would force a winner-take-all rematch Monday night at Davenport, a game Virginia would prefer to avoid.
“I definitely want to wrap it up,” junior third baseman Steven Proscia said Saturday night. “We’ve got a lot of confidence, a lot of momentum going into tomorrow. We’ve got a great starting pitcher on the mound, and we’ve got a fresh bullpen.”
Proscia entered Saturday’s game tied with junior catcher John Hicks for the team lead in home runs. That tie was broken in the first inning, when Proscia belted his eighth of the season, a two-run shot off Red Storm ace Kyle Hansen that put Virginia ahead for good.
“When you give a guy like Danny Hultzen some run support, like we did, you put yourself in a pretty good position to win the game,” said Proscia, an All-ACC first-team pick.
Proscia went 3 for 5 with three RBI against St. John’s. Another of the Cavaliers’ first-team All-ACC selections, David Coleman, also went 3 for 5, and the senior right-fielder drove in four runs.
The story Saturday night, though, was Hultzen, a junior left-hander who’ll be one of the first players selected Monday night in the Major League Baseball draft. Not only did he pitch well enough to improve to 11-3, Hultzen went 2 for 4 at the plate, with an RBI. In two NCAA tourney games this weekend, he’s 5 for 8, with four RBI.
“Danny Hultzen is a special talent,” St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer said. “If I’m sitting in the first spot, I’m taking him.”
UVa and St. John’s met twice in last year’s NCAA regional at Davenport, including the finale, but Hultzen did not pitch in either game.
“You know, you read about him, and you don’t understand how effective he is until you get in that batter’s box,” Red Storm sophomore Jeremy Baltz said. “Like Coach said, he’s a special talent.”
In five games in last year’s Charlottesville regional, the 6-3, 205-pound Baltz went 7 for 16 with four home runs and 11 RBI. Against Hultzen on Saturday night, Baltz went 0 for 3, striking out each time.
“I remember the balls he hit last year,” Hultzen said. “He’s a really good hitter, and he’s a big guy. He’s kind of an intimidating force up there, but luckily we were able to make some pitches and hold him to that.”
Hultzen, who already held the school records for career wins and career strikeouts, added another one during his seven-inning stint Saturday night: strikeouts in a season. He now has 148, eclipsing the mark set by Tim Burcham (146) in 1985.
“You can take him for granted, that’s for sure,” O’Connor said. “I can tell you I don’t. I continue to be impressed by him: his maturity, his ability, his toughness and competitiveness, his unselfishness.
“He possesses all the qualities that you want out of a player, an All-American player. I love the kid. His teammates love him. It’s all about the University of Virginia. It’s not about his personal situation. That’s why he’s rewarded for it. Tonight was a good example. He’s pounding out hits, he’s running to first base as hard as he possibly can for his team. He’s not saving back anything.”
Back-to-back RBI singles by Coleman and Jared King in the fourth pushed UVa’s lead to 4-0, “which seemed like 100-0 at that particular time,” Blankmeyer said.
Sophomore Whit Mayberry took over for Hultzen to begin the eighth and went the rest of the way, striking out two and walking none. In UVa’s two NCAA tournament games, O’Connor’s batters have totaled 24 hits and 16 runs. His pitchers have struck out 28, allowed 10 hits and walked one. His fielders have made one error.
“They can’t play much better than they’re playing now,” Blankmeyer said. “Outside of a ground ball that was booted [Saturday night], did they do anything wrong?”
Virginia has done little wrong all season. The ‘Hoos won nine of their 10 ACC series. The series loss came in Chapel Hill, where North Carolina swept them on the regular season’s final weekend, but the Cavaliers responded by winning the ACC tournament in Durham.
“To be 51-9, you gotta be pretty focused all year long,” O’Connor said. “But when we came back from North Carolina and went down to the ACC tournament, it just seemed like we took another step. [The players] understood that it was championship time, and they needed to be at their best all the time, and they certainly have, for six games in a row here. We’ve played really, really good baseball, some of our best baseball of the year.”
Another capacity crowd is expected Sunday night at Davenport, where attendance records continue to fall.
“This is a great weekend for our fans,” O’Connor said. “I say it again and again. Our fans have continued to pour out their support to our program. Our administration has continued to step up to the plate and add more seats and things like that.
“Who knows where this can end some day? We’re drawing over 5,000 people now. Why can’t we do 7,000 some time, 8,000 some time? Who knows? I’m sure there’s people out there in this community that would have liked to have been in this ballpark tonight and couldn’t get in. Our fans have always been very, very special to us, and they’ve absolutely made a difference in our program.”