By Jeff White
OMAHA, Neb. — Brian O’Connor confirmed Friday what everyone was expecting: Danny Hultzen will start on the mound for UVa in its College World Series opener Sunday against California at TD Ameritrade Park.
Hultzen, a junior left-hander, was the ACC’s pitcher of the year in 2010 and again this season. He’s 12-3 with a 1.49 earned-run average. Cal plans to start right-hander Erik Johnson (7-4, 2.91), a 6-2, 240-pound junior.
Virginia advanced to the College World Series for the first time in 2009, and Hultzen started the opener that year, too, working three innings in a 9-5 loss to eventual NCAA champion LSU.
Karl Kuhn believes that experience — and many others — will help Hultzen handle the pressure that comes with pitching in this setting.
“I think that’s the beauty of coming back for your second time,” Kuhn, Virginia’s pitching coach, said Friday afternoon after Virginia’s practice at TD Ameritrade Park.
“I think that if he was a freshman, this would be different. Let’s try and remember what this young man has done. He’s pitched in Omaha. He’s been a Friday night guy for three years. He did all that as a freshman. He’s gone through the Major League draft. He was the No. 2 overall pick. He’s had to answer questions from scouts and reporters for the last 24 months about his future. I don’t know if there’s much that can rattle this kid.”
Before Virginia’s CWS opener in 2009, Kuhn said, “I just told [Hultzen] to stick with what you’ve done all year long. Exactly that. Take care of your business. The only thing you can control is the pitch coming out of your hand. All of the lights and the flashes going off, no one can control any of that, and no one can control what anybody else is going to say and think. The only thing that we can control is what comes out of your hand, and I think that he’s going to take care of that for us again.”
Kuhn doesn’t plan to say anything special to Hultzen on Sunday.
“We’re going to treat this just like every other game,” Kuhn said. “We’re going to go and we’re going to do our meetings, we’re going to strategize together. He’s going to see video, he’s going to watch [the Golden Bears’] order before he faces them, and we’re going to go to war, and that’s it.”
Hultzen and such teammates as Steven Proscia, Tyler Wilson, John Hicks, John Barr and Keith Werman will join an elite group Sunday. They will be among those who have played in CWS games at both Rosenblatt Stadium and TD Ameritrade Park.
TD Ameritrade Park replaced Rosenblatt this year as the home of the College World Series.
“Those are memories for a lifetime,” O’Connor said. “Those are things they’re going to be able to share with their kids.”
SOBERING SIGHT: As the airplane carrying the Cavaliers descended into Omaha on Thursday morning, O’Connor looked out his window and saw the flooded areas near the city, which the swollen Missouri River separates from Council Bluffs, Iowa.
O’Connor grew up in Council Bluffs, as did his wife, Cindy, and he attended Creighton University in Omaha.
“I can tell you, being from here, looking out the window of the plane as we were approaching the airport, I felt really, really sad,” O’Connor said Friday.
“My wife was sitting with me on the plane, and my kids, and just to see the farmland around the airport all washed away and everything, it’s terrible for the people here. Fortunately we’ll be able to get the College World Series in, but you just feel terrible for those people, and it’s not going anywhere. It seems like it’s going to continue for the summer, and they’re going to be dealing with it the whole time.”
O’Connor’s parents still live in Council Bluffs, and they know people there, he said, who have been affected by the flooding.
As a boy, O’Connor said, he never experienced flooding of this magnitude.
“You’ve seen it in other states,” he said, “but when it’s your hometown and you see people impacted like that, and from the vantage point that we had to see it, flying right over it — it’s almost up to the darn runway at the airport — it’s pretty sad.”
COACHSPEAK: Four of the eight teams that made the College World Series will play Saturday, the rest on Sunday.
The schedule (all times Eastern): North Carolina vs. Vanderbilt, 2 p.m. Saturday; Florida vs. Texas, 7 p.m. Saturday; UVa vs. Cal, 2 p.m. Sunday; South Carolina vs. Texas A&M, 7 p.m. Sunday.
O’Connor spoke at a press conference Friday, along with his counterparts from Cal, South Carolina and Texas A&M.
“I can you tell that the University of Virginia is very excited to be back in Omaha,” O’Connor said. “This is such a great community. Obviously, personally, it’s very important to me, but they have treated our players and our administrators and our fans with tremendous class and have been very, very helpful.”
Cal is back in the College World Series for the first time since 1992.
“I know probably 90 percent of the teams in America, when their fall practice starts, they end practice and they get in a circle and they all put their hand in the middle and they all break by saying, ‘Omaha!’ ” Cal coach David Esquer said.
“It seems so far away when you’re starting fall practice. And for some players — and quite frankly for guys in our program — [there’s the issue of] not having been there, not quite knowing exactly how much sacrifice it’s going to take, or commitment that it’s going to take, or extra work that it’s going to take, to actually get you in a position where you can be there.”
Esquer chuckled about a question he got from a reporter Thursday.
“He says, ‘Hey, Coach, how was your day today?’ ” Esquer recalled. “I said, ‘Any morning you can wake up in Omaha is a good day.’ “
Ray Tanner, coach of defending NCAA champion South Carolina, would second that statement.
“I’ve never a part of a Final Four, I’ve never been a part of a BCS bowl game,” Tanner said, “but it’s hard for me to imagine there’s a better event than the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.”
ART OF THE SALE: In eight seasons under O’Connor, Virginia has made eight appearances in the NCAA tournament and won two ACC championships. Before his arrival, the Cavaliers had played in the NCAAs only three times: in 1972, 1985 and 1996.
His approach to recruiting has changed as his program’s national profile has risen.
“What we were doing seven and eight years ago with our recruiting is, we were talking to high-level players about coming to the University of Virginia and making a difference,” O’Connor said.
“I’ll tell you what our sales pitch to them was: You can go to college baseball programs that have been to Omaha, that have won conference championships for 20, 30 years, or you can come to the University of Virginia and make a difference and be able to say for the rest of your life, ‘I went somewhere and made a difference in a program.’
“That was our pitch, to find the kids that that appealed to. Do you want to go where it’s comfortable and where you know they’ve always had success and you know that probably at some point in your career you’re going to play a game in Omaha? Or do you want to go to a place and be able to say for the rest of your life you made a difference in a program going to Omaha.”
O’Connor’s starting left-fielder, senior John Barr, committed to UVa in 2006, at the end of his junior year at Germantown Academy outside Philadelphia.
At that point, the Wahoos had won a lot of games under O’Connor but had yet to reach an NCAA super regional, let alone the College World Series.
“It excited me that we could potentially be the first class to go to Omaha once I got there,” Barr said Friday. “And that’s always something that intrigued me, and I wanted to work towards.”
He liked Virginia’s mix of “great academics and great athletics,” Barr said, as well as the ACC’s reputation as an elite baseball league.
Moreover, Barr said, “I really liked the coaches, and the facilities were always great. I don’t know how much [O’Connor’s] pitch has evolved since then, but I think it was pretty good back then.”
Today, O’Connor said, the coaching staff is “in a position that we can talk to recruits about the fact that we have won conference championships, we do compete at the highest level within our league, that we have been to Omaha now a second time.
“You will have a chance to come here and put yourself in position to win national championships. You will come to the University of Virginia, and you will play [at Davenport Field] in front of 5,000 people that are passionate about this baseball program, and maybe by the time those kids come here, they might be playing in front of 6,000 or 7,000 people. And finally, that we have been fortunate to be able to provide a track record to those recruits that they can come win, and not only win and graduate and do all those things they need to do, but they can be prepared to have success at the next level of baseball, which is important to the young men we recruit.”
In the Philadelphia area, Barr said, it was a big deal when he signed with UVa, “because it was an ACC school that had done well. Now it’s a perennial powerhouse, and you hear the name Virginia, and everybody all of the sudden realizes that you’re going to be pretty darned good program that has a chance to win it all every year.”