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May 6, 2014

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — If he does nothing else as a college pitcher — an unlikely scenario — Whit Mayberry has already earned a place in University of Virginia baseball lore.

From players to coaches to fans, everyone associated with the program will long treasure the memory of April 25, the opening night of Virginia’s three-game series with then-No. 4 Florida State at Dick Howser Stadium in Tallahassee.

The teams were tied 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning. Mayberry was on the mound, with the bases loaded and only one out. With the Seminoles’ fans in full voice, Mayberry struck out pinch-hitter Ladson Montgomery. Next up was Josh Delph, who took three straight pitches, all balls, to push the top-ranked Cavaliers to the brink of defeat.

“I’ve never been in that situation before,” Mayberry said last week.

The 6-1, 190-pound right-hander was unfazed. His next pitch, down the middle of the plate, made the count 3-1. Another strike made it 3-2, and then Mayberry retired Delph on a grounder to second base.

“That’s mentally tough, man,” FSU shortstop Justin Gonzalez told reporters in Tallahassee. “I don’t know a lot of players that can do that.”

Virginia coach Brian O’Connor marveled at the poise Mayberry showed to “throw strike 1, strike 2, strike 3. If one of those misses, the game’s over. It ranks right up there for me.”

Mayberry said: “That’ll definitely stick with me, I think, for a while. Glad we made it out of that one. It was pretty awesome the way that game ended up, too.”

In the 10th inning, junior Derek Fisher hammered a two-run double, and the game ended with the Wahoos ahead 5-3. Afterward, though, Fisher was more interested in talking about Mayberry’s feat than about his own clutch hitting.

”Throwing a strike in front of the best ACC crowd that we’re going to be at, that’s the most impressive thing that happened all night,” Fisher said. “Being down 3-0 and being able to throw a strike with the bases loaded, that was hands down the most impressive thing I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”

Mayberry, who prefers to see the spotlight shine on his teammates, singled out catcher Nate Irving’s role in the Cavaliers’ great escape.

“I’m glad Irv came out [to the mound] and settled me down a little bit,” Mayberry recalled. “He told me, `Man, you’ve been doing this. Just rely on what we’ve been doing all year. Just throw strikes.’ “

When he enrolled at the University in the summer of 2009, Mayberry, a graduate of St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, expected to have exhausted his college eligibility by now. But after earning a starting spot in UVa’s weekend rotation early in his junior season, Mayberry hurt his right elbow in March 2012 and underwent Tommy John surgery the next month.

Mayberry received a hardship waiver that granted him another year of eligibility. He returned to the mound Feb. 16, 2013, and made 22 appearances last season, 18 out of the bullpen. On a team that won 50 games and advanced to an NCAA super regional, Mayberry had a 4-0 record and 2.45 earned-run average.

“Last year he’s pitching and he clearly doesn’t have the same stuff he had before he got hurt,” O’Connor said, “but he found a way, even with marginal stuff, to beat North Carolina at North Carolina, and to be a tremendously valuable pitcher for us.”

Mayberry already has made 21 appearances this season — all but one in relief — and has a 4-1 record and 1.78 ERA for UVa (37-9), which hosts No. 22 Liberty (35-10) at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Davenport Field.

“No question, two years later he’s back to where he was before he got hurt,” O’Connor said.

The more he pitches, Mayberry said, the stronger his arm feels. “It’s definitely been a process, but again I’ve had a lot of people helping me out along the way here, that have helped me get back to feeling good, and I’m really thankful for all their support.”

Mayberry, whose parents are graduates of UNC, where his brother is in law school, has distinguished himself off the diamond, too. He graduated last May with a bachelor’s degree from UVa’s prestigious McIntire School of Commerce. This month he’s set to receive a master’s in Social Foundations from UVa’s Curry School of Education.

“My parents were always big on school and told me to make the most of every opportunity you get to learn, and I’ve really tried to take that to heart this year and balance my classes with baseball,” Mayberry said. “I’m really thankful for the things that I’ve learned. I feel like I’ve come out with a lot bigger perspective on the way things work in the United States, and I’m really proud to say that I’ve had that experience.”

His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. UVa held its annual all-sports banquet April 28 at John Paul Jones Arena, and Mayberry was among those honored. To his surprise, he was the male recipient of the school’s ACC Scholar-Athlete Award.

“I’m sure a lot of people were nominated,” Mayberry said. “I’m humbled that they decided to give it to me.”

His master’s program has been enlightening, Mayberry said, and after “learning about education this year, I could definitely see myself getting involved in some way in the field of education, maybe as a teacher. I’d love to coach baseball, too. I think that would be really cool.”

That Mayberry takes his graduate work seriously does not surprise his baseball coach.

“Since Whit Mayberry’s been here, he’s never done anything other than full tilt and the right way,” O’Connor said. “I always believe there’s a direct correlation between how you handle yourself off the field and performance on the field. He’s a great example of that.”

Mayberry lives with another pitcher, senior right-hander Artie Lewicki, who also had Tommy John surgery in 2012. At 23, Mayberry is the oldest player on the team.

“We’ve got 18-, 19-year-old kids on the team,” he said, smiling. “I was starting college when they were starting high school. It’s kind of funny to think about. But I guess it keeps me young. I don’t always feel old. I feel like just one of the guys.”

Like his teammates, Mayberry aspires to play pro baseball. “I’m ready for whatever the future holds, though. I’m really just excited to take this next step with this team. That’s what this year’s been about for me: doing everything in our power to be ready when tournament time comes.”

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