By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For University of Virginia pitcher Kyle Crockett, the turnaround began on a Wednesday evening at Davenport Field, after one of the shakier innings of his college career.
Against JMU on April 4, Crockett allowed three hits and two runs in the first inning. When the sophomore left-hander returned to the dugout, UVa pitching coach Karl Kuhn sought him out.
After an impressive freshman season in which he made 27 appearances — 26 out of the bullpen — and went 3-0, with a 1.97 earned-run average, Crockett had not elevated his game as many expected him to in 2012. And now here he was struggling in his first start of the season.
“Coach Ks brought me inside and told me that I needed to go out there and attack and stop trying to place the ball and do too much,” Crockett said, “and that’s what I did for the rest of the game, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the rest of the season.”
Crockett, the state’s Gatorade player of the year as a Poquoson High senior, pitched three more innings against JMU and encountered no more problems. He faced the minimum nine batters before giving way to freshman right-hander Nick Howard, and when the game ended, Crockett got the win.
Coming out of that game, Crockett’s ERA was 4.56. It has since steadily dropped and now stands at 2.54. Crockett’s record is 3-2. In 46 innings, he has struck out 43 batters and walked only 11. Opponents are batting .188 against him.
“He didn’t pitch that great early in that start against JMU,” head coach Brian O’Connor said last week, “but he did towards the end of it, and ever since then he has just been really, really good, close to dominant out of the bullpen.
“So something clicked for him. His command got better. And sometimes that’s why you start a guy that’s a reliever, and hopefully he gets enough work out there to get some things figured out to get him back on track. He’s been just really tremendous over the last [month].”
Monday night in Coral Gables, Fla., UVa completed its first series sweep of the Miami Hurricanes. Crockett made two appearances against the ‘Canes. In the series opener, he struck out four in 3.1 innings of relief, allowing one hit, no runs and no walks.
In the series finale, which stretched Virginia’s winning streak to a season-high seven games, the 6-2, 170-pound Crockett threw well again. After taking over for starter Artie Lewickie, Crockett gave up one hit and two runs, both unearned, in two innings. He fanned three.
“I’m just a little more comfortable than I was at the beginning of the year with my wind-up and everything,” Crockett said. “I’ve changed a few things around this year, and I’m finally getting really comfortable with what I’m doing out there.”
From a team that advanced to the College World Series, UVa lost pitchers Danny Hultzen, Will Roberts, Tyler Wilson and Cody Winiarski, who combined for 39 victories last season.
“We lost a lot of pitching,” Crockett said, “and I did expect that I was going to have to be a bigger part of the team this year. That could have been [the reason for] some of my nerves at the beginning of the year. I just had to put that behind me and go out and do my best.”
UVa’s starter behind the plate, freshman Nate Irving, said it has become “harder to catch Kyle, because his ball’s moving a lot. When he has that movement on his fastball, especially, it makes it really, really hard to hit, especially with his slider and his curveball, because they’re two different opposite pitches.
“He’s getting ahead in the counts, and that’s big for him. I remember the game against JMU, the first inning was a little tough for him. He wasn’t really getting ahead of hitters, and therefore they were able to sit on some stuff and put some good swings on it.”
Crockett’s second start came in another midweek game at Davenport Field, this one against Radford on April 24. In five innings, he struck out a career-best eight batters, walked none and allowed only three hits in a game the Wahoos went on to win in extra innings.
“Before the game Coach Kuhn came up to me and he said, ‘Don’t do anything different than what you would do coming in in relief,’ ” Crockett said, “and I went out there and I acted just like that and tried to do the same thing.”
In the ACC series that preceded the Radford game, Crockett had pitched only two innings, so “I thought it was a perfect opportunity to give him a start and get him some good work,” O’Connor said.
“It’s not necessarily because we’re looking at him as a starter. It’s more just to get him out there and get him innings, and I think over the last three weeks he’s pitched some tremendous baseball.”
At Poquoson, he was a starter, and Crockett went 13-0 as a junior and 14-0 as a senior. He wouldn’t mind being a regular starter again, Crockett said, “but wherever the team needs me most is fine with me.”
O’Connor came into the season planning to use Crockett out of the bullpen.
“He’s our most experienced left-handed pitcher, and he’s obviously pitched in that role,” O’Connor said. “I knew that there were times that we could spot-start him, depending on the development of some other pitchers in the bullpen. I just think he’s got really good versatility, and he can do a few different things for us.”