By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Out of necessity, pitcher Kyle Crockett changed roles in the Orleans Firebirds’ bullpen in 2012. He ended up making the same move at the University of Virginia this year, and the experience Crockett gained last summer in the storied Cape Cod League eased his transition.
“It was great,” Crockett recalled recently at Davenport Field. “Our original closer up there got hurt, and so they made me the closer probably the last two-thirds of the year. It was nice doing that and then coming down here and doing the same thing.”
As a freshman in 2011, Crockett made 26 relief appearances, including two in the College World Series, but the Cavaliers’ closer that year was All-American Branden Kline. Justin Thompson moved into that slot in 2012, when virtually all of Crockett’s 32 appearances came in middle relief.
With eight freshmen joining the pitching staff, and veteran Whit Mayberry coming off Tommy John surgery, Crockett was a logical choice to succeed Thompson as closer this year.
“I knew he could handle it,” pitching coach Karl Kuhn said.
Kuhn’s confidence was well-founded. Crockett, a 6-2 left-hander from Poquoson, a small city in the state’s Tidewater region, has been sensational this spring for a team ranked in the top 10 nationally.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do,” Kuhn said. “He’s the consummate team guy. He probably could be starting for us, but he knows his team needs him at the back end. He’s a selfless person and a selfless player, and I’m very happy for him. He’s having great results.”
Coming out of UVa’s weekend series at Georgia Tech, Crockett was 2-0 with a 0.68 earned-run average and seven saves. Opponents were hitting .194 against him. In 17 appearances, he’d pitched 26.1 innings, striking out 34 and walking only one. And that walk was intentional.
It came Sunday afternoon in Atlanta, where, with one out in the bottom of the fifth, UVa head coach Brian O’Connor had Crockett walk Matt Gonzalez to load the bases. The Yellow Jackets’ next batter, A.J. Murray, hit into an inning-ending double play.
The appearance Sunday was Crockett’s first since April 8, when in a 9-7 win at Wake Forest he became the first pitcher in UVa history to record saves in five consecutive games.
“He makes our team feel very, very comfortable,” Kuhn said. “He’s just a calming presence for our young players. He’s battle-tested.
At Poquoson High, where was the state’s Gatorade player of the year in 2010, Crockett went 13-0 as a junior and 14-0 as senior.
“I had three pitches in high school,” he recalled, “but I would throw my changeup maybe 20 percent of the time, and then my curveball maybe 5 percent of the time. Everything else was fastball. I never, when I would get ahead in the count, threw those sliders or anything like that.”
He was a starter at Poquoson. At UVa, all but three of his 76 appearances have been in relief. “It doesn’t matter to me,” said Crockett, a sociology major, “as long as I get to pitch.”
He doesn’t approach his latest role at Virginia any differently from his previous one, Crockett said. Whether he’s entering a game in the sixth inning or in the ninth, “I try not to think too much out there. I think that’s some people’s problem, they get in their own heads. I go out there and just try to attack batters. That’s pretty much what I do, whatever role I’m in.”
He was almost impossibly thin, maybe 155 pounds, when he enrolled at UVa. He’s now closer to 175, Crockett said, in part because he’s made a concerted effort to get bigger.
“I didn’t lift much in high school, so that’s definitely helped a lot,” he said, “and just eating as much as I can all the time and drinking the protein shakes that they give us here. I’ve definitely been trying to put on weight the entire time I’ve been here.”
From the freshman class that entered UVa in the summer of 2010, only three players remain in O’Connor’s program: Crockett and fellow pitchers Artie Lewicki and Austin Young. He’s gone from rookie to upperclassman in a flash, Crockett said.
“It flies by, and this year’s gone by just as fast, if not faster, than the other years,” he said. “It’s good. I feel like some of the younger guys are looking up to me, especially in the bullpen. I just try to help them out and give them tips whenever I can.”
Crockett was 3-0, with a 1.97 ERA, in 2011. He went 5-2 with a 2.25 ERA as a sophomore.
If he’s elevated his performance this year, Crockett said, it’s because he has more confidence in all of his pitches. “I think Coach Kuhn has also gained a lot of confidence in calling every pitch in pretty much every situation,” Crockett said, “because I’ve had to make those big pitches that are not just fastballs. So I think that’s the big part of it: hitting my spots with different pitches and having the confidence to throw them.”
Crockett had little trouble adjusting to college baseball. Poquoson, however, has only about 12,000 residents, so his adjustment to life at a major university was more challenging.
“Poquoson’s a small town,” Crockett said. “It’s tiny. Everybody knows everybody. Being here as a freshman, the campus just seems huge and you don’t know anybody, and it seems all so different. But since I’ve been here for three years now, everything seems to get smaller and smaller.”
On the diamond, the Wahoos (31-6 overall, 13-5 ACC) are well on their way to a 10th straight appearance in the NCAA tournament. Like O’Connor, however, UVa’s players are not satisfied.
“Everybody’s ecstatic that we’re doing well, but we’ve still got some things to work on,” Crockett said. “Our coach always tells us that we don’t have everything figured out, and he’s right. We can’t relax. We’ve got to keep going out there and getting better.”