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May 31, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Had he not had to use All-ACC closer Kyle Crockett on Friday afternoon, Brian O’Connor would have been happier after his team’s opener in the NCAA baseball tournament. But UVa’s game with Army turned out to be much closer than expected, and O’Connor took no chances after getting seven stellar innings from starter Brandon Waddell.

Crockett, as is usually the case, carried out his assignment with aplomb. In the first game of the four-team Charlottesville regional, the junior left-hander held the Black Knights scoreless in the final two innings, striking out the side in the ninth. That allowed the top-seeded Cavaliers to come away with a 2-1 victory in front of 3,826 at Davenport Field.

“We faced him last year, I believe, in relief, and I didn’t like him much then, either,” Army coach Joe Sottolano said at the postgame press conference, to laughter from his audience.

In 2012, in the opening game of the NCAA tournament’s Charlottesville regional, Crockett pitched 1.1 scoreless innings, allowing one hit, striking out two and walking none to help UVa defeat Army 9-1.

The rematch was anything but one-sided. The Wahoos didn’t score until the fifth inning, when they went ahead 2-1, and they couldn’t exhale until Crockett fanned Jacob Page with a wicked breaking ball for the game’s final out.

“There’s not too much to say,” UVa catcher Nate Irvingsaid when asked about Crockett’s latest gem. “Kyle’s good.”

Irving smiled. “He’s not bad. He’s another guy that’s just in control on the mound. When he goes out there, you can tell when you look at him that he’s going to get outs quickly, he’s going to throw strikes and he’s really going to pound the zone.”

O’Connor said: “You wish that you didn’t have to put him in this game. Obviously if we would have capitalized on some opportunities throughout the ballgame from an offensive standpoint, he might not have seen the mound. But the situation called for it. It’s a one-run game.”

In collecting his 11th save of the season, Crockett lowered his earned-run average to 1.74.

“I tell you, this kid has just been Mr. Consistent for us, from the start to the finish,” O’Connor said. “He’s got really, really great stuff — you can see that — but he’s just got good poise, and you just know what you’re going to get out of him. He might not win the game, but you know that they’re going to have to beat him. He’s not going to beat himself.”

Army’s ace, senior right-hander Chris Rowley, pitched considerably better Friday than he had a year earlier against the Wahoos. But Virginia opened the bottom of the fifth with three straight hits — the first a double by sophomore Kenny Towns– and scored twice before Rowley, with the bases loaded, retired three batters in a row to keep the game at 2-1.

“This kid has done unbelievable things in Army’s uniform in his career,” O’Connor said. “This guy really, really knows how to pitch. His stuff is not overpowering, but he can put the ball where he wants to, he changes speeds, and we gotta give him a ton of credit. He made the big pitches today for his team to give them a chance to win.”

Rowley scattered eight hits, struck out three and walked three in seven innings Friday. “He did a fantastic job for them,” O’Connor said. “Fortunately Brandon Waddellwas just as good or better than Rowley was.”

In the winner’s bracket, Virginia (48-10) will meet No. No. 3 seed Elon (33-28) at 6 p.m. Saturday at Davenport Field. Elon defeated No. 2 seed UNC Wilmington 10-7 in the second game Friday.

Fourth-seeded Army (29-22) faces an elimination game Saturday at 1 p.m. against UNCW (37-22).

UVa’s starter Saturday night will be 6-foot-6 left-hander Scott Silverstein, a fifth-year senior who has overcome two shoulder operations during his college career. This will be the first start in the NCAA tournament for Silverstein, who’s 9-1 with a 3.07 ERA this season.

“This will be cool,” he said Thursday. “This will be fun for me.”

For the Cavaliers, this is the fifth consecutive year they’ve won their NCAA tourney opener. Virginia won the first four games in that streak by an average of 7.3 runs, and nobody would have been surprised if Friday’s game had been one-sided too.

UVa had multiple chances to pull away from Army. The `Hoos stranded 11 runners. Not only did they stall out in the fifth inning after taking a 2-1 lead, they couldn’t get Towns home from third after his one-out triple in the sixth. In the seventh UVa had runners on first and third with none out, only to come away with no runs again.

“We certainly had numerous opportunities to break the game open a little bit, and just couldn’t get that big hit,” O’Connor said. “I’m just really proud of our guys that we hung in there, like we have all year, and found a way to win the game.”

Towns scored on sophomore left-fielder Mike Papi’s single to right field in the fifth, pulling UVa to 1-1. Two batters later, freshman Joe McCarthy(3 for 3) also singled to right, scoring Irving from third with what turned out to be the winning game.

Towns and Irving each had two hits Friday. Virginia’s pitchers, however, deserve most of the credit for this victory.

Waddell, a freshman left-hander from Houston, struck out eight, walked none and allowed only three hits before giving way to Crockett. In his first appearance since a disastrous outing against Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament, Waddell sparkled.

“I just put it completely behind me,” he said. “There’s moments from that game that you learn from, and then you take those experiences and you move on to the next game.”

The `Hoos were disappointed not to score more than two runs in the fifth Friday, but not discouraged.

“That’s the game of baseball sometimes,” Irving said. “Things are going to happen within a game that don’t go your way … We had all the confidence in Brandon out there today. He was absolutely phenomenal, and I think defensively we were solid.”

That Waddell and McCarthy impressed in their NCAA tournament debuts did not surprise O’Connor. Waddell started the Cavaliers’ season-opener in February and has been in the weekend rotation all year. The 6-3, 225-pound McCarthy, the ACC freshman of the year, is hitting .338 with 50 RBI.

“This guy’s an animal,” O’Connor said. “He just shows up every day ready to play, really competes. But he’s got a real maturity about himself in the batter’s box. He doesn’t let negative things impact him. He just gets ready for the next pitch.”

Some of Virginia’s veterans showed more postseason anxiety than the rookies Friday. “Hopefully our entire team learns from today and maybe relaxes a little bit and just goes out and plays,” O’Connor said.

Could this hard-fought victory help the ‘Hoos later in the NCAA tournament? Maybe so, O’Connor said.

“I think when you’re playing this time of the year, most of the games are going to be close,” O’Connor said, “and we learned today that you have to make the clutch pitches and you have to make the clutch plays. We did that really, really well today, and I think there’s a really good lesson in that.

“That being said, sure you’d love to win the game by a larger margin, and obviously we wouldn’t have had to use Kyle Crockett if that had been the case. Hopefully everybody has [the first game behind] them, and we can just go out and play good, aggressive baseball like we have all year.”

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