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June 2, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Five years after graduating from St. John’s College High School in D.C., after an obstacle-filled journey that included two major operations on his throwing shoulder, Scott Silverstein took the mound Saturday night for the first NCAA tournament start of his college baseball career.

About two hours later, after pitching six scoreless innings for a UVa team looking to advance of the championship game of the regional, Silverstein took a seat in the dugout. The 6-6, 240-pound left-hander had performed brilliantly in front a large, loud crowd of 4,434 at Davenport Field.

“That’s why I came here to Virginia, because that’s what I wanted,” Silverstein said. “Whether it was the first year or the fifth year, this is the environment I wanted to play in, and I’m really blessed to take advantage of that.”

Freshman right-hander Josh Sborz pitched the seventh for Virginia, and then junior left-hander Kyle Crockett, for the second straight day, dominated the final two innings. As he had Friday afternoon against Army, Crockett struck out the side in the ninth, and UVa walked away with a 2-0 victory over the Elon Phoenix.

“We’ve had some pretty special closers here, and this is no disrespect to any of them, but this guy is the best,” said Brian O’Connor, who’s in the 10th season as the Cavaliers’ coach.

Crockett lowered his earned-run average to 1.68 in picking up his 12th save of the season. The win went to Silverstein. It was heady stuff for a pitcher whose record in 2012 — Silverstein’s first season as a full-time starter at Virginia — was 2-5.

“Last year he went through his struggles, but he hung in there, and he learned from last season,” O’Connor said. “That’s the important lesson in this thing. He just didn’t stay the same. He got better, he worked at it, and here he is 10-1 in his final year. Pretty special story.”

Silverstein allowed six hits, struck out six and walked two against Elon, the No. 3 seed in this four-team regional. Most memorable was his work in the fifth inning. After an error by UVa second baseman Reed Gragnani, the Phoenix had runners on second and third with only one out. But Silverstein struck out Ryan Kinsella, who has 20 home runs and 76 RBI this season, and then retired Sebastian Gomez on a line drive to Gragnani.

“Silverstein was unbelievable,” Elon coach Mike Kennedy said. “I thought when we worked counts and we had opportunities, he got better. We chased some pitches out of the zone, but a lot of that was because he was so good in those situations. We’d get guys on base, and then he was like a different guy. He would just bear down and make pitch after pitch, and that’s what the great ones do, and that’s why he’s 10-1 now.”

Top-seeded UVa (49-10) can advance to an NCAA super regional with a victory Sunday night at Davenport Field. Elon (33-29) and No. 2 UNC Wilmington (38-22) meet at 1 p.m. in an elimination game, with the winner moving on to face Virginia at 6 p.m.

UNCW ousted Army 9-5 on Saturday afternoon in a game that lasted nearly four hours and ended with a triple play.

Redshirt junior Whit Mayberry (4-0, 2.05 ERA) will start Sunday night for UVa. The Wahoos hope to give Mayberry a greater margin for error than their pitchers had against Army and Elon.

The `Hoos came into the NCAA tournament averaging 8.1 runs per game. They edged Army 2-1 in the opener and could not break out offensively Saturday night, either. Senior left-hander Spencer Medick, a graduate of nearby Woodberry Forest School who began his college career at Hampden-Sydney College, pitched his first complete game for Elon.

“This guy to my left over here was unbelievable,” Kennedy said at the postgame press conference. “Made pitch after pitch after pitch and just kept us in there.”

The Cavaliers capitalized on Medick’s rare lapses Saturday night. With one out in the top of the fourth — Elon was the home team in this game — UVa sophomore Nick Howard reached on an infield hit. Howard stole second and then took third on a wild pitch. He came home on a double by classmate Kenny Towns, who scored himself a moment later when yet another talented Virginia sophomore, Nate Irving, singled up the middle.

In the final four innings, UVa was able to get only two runners in scoring position. Still, O’Connor believes a breakout game is imminent for his offense.

“No question,” he said. “I’ve got 100-percent confidence in this group from an offensive standpoint. I just feel good. You’ve only scored four runs, and you’re 2-0 [in this regional].

“Hitting, you have all heard this many times, is the hardest thing to do in sports, and it can come and go. I’ve always talked about how, to win at championship time, you have to pitch and you have to defend.”

Sophomores Mike Papi, Brandon Downes and Howard had two hits apiece for UVa, but the NCAA tournament struggles, dating to last season, continued for sophomore Derek Fisher and fifth-year senior Jared King. They’re a combined 0 for 14 in this regional.

Still, O’Connor said, he believes “the sign of a really, really good ball club is one that finds a way to win in different ways. There’s been many times this year that we’ve scored eight, nine, 10 runs, scored 30 runs on a weekend, and these two ball games we’ve found a way to win with great pitching and really good defense. So you never know what’s going to happen in the next one. These kids just continue to pick each other up and find a way to get the job done.”

Crockett threw 31 pitches against Army, but O’Connor didn’t hesitate to use him again Saturday night.

“I really believe when you’re in the 1-0 game and you have a chance to win it, you have to do everything you gotta do to win that game,” O’Connor said, because UVa’s opponent Sunday night will already have played once that day.

“So I just felt it was important for our club to win the one in front of us,” O’Connor said, “and you have to go with your guy, and Kyle Crockett’s been our guy every game in that scenario this year.”

Could Crockett pitch again Sunday night?

“I knew that one was coming,” O’Connor said, smiling. “I don’t know. We’ll see how he feels tomorrow. I’m sure that he’ll want the ball.”

In 2011, en route to its second appearance in the College World Series, UVa went 3-0 to win the Charlottesville regional. But O’Connor hasn’t forgotten what happened in the 2007 regional at Davenport Field. The `Hoos won their first two games — beating Lafayette and Oregon State — only to lose the next two to Oregon State, which went on to win a second straight NCAA title.

“We’ll do whatever we can to win tomorrow night,” O’Connor said after the Elon game. “Our guys have nothing to be uptight about. We’re playing in our own ballpark. We’ve got a heck of a team. We’ve got a chance tomorrow night to go for our 50th win. There’s not many teams in college baseball that get a chance to do that.”

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