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April 2, 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Virginia coaching staff came into the school year with a decision to make about Tommy Doyle: use him as a starter, which was his role early last season, or keep him as the closer, his role during the second half of last season.

Doyle, a right-hander from Northern Virginia, did not have a clear preference, and he said as much to head coach Brian O’Connor.

“I just told Oak, `I want to pitch, and I want to help the team any way possible,’ ” Doyle said.

O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn opted to have Doyle continue as the Cavaliers’ closer, and in his first 11 appearances this season the 6-6, 235-pound junior dazzled, recording seven saves, striking out 18, walking none and posting a 1.84 earned-run average.

And so the Wahoos had every reason to be confident Sunday afternoon when Doyle took over for starter Adam Haseley to begin the eighth inning. No. 16 Virginia led No. 2 Louisville 3-2 at Davenport Field and was six outs from a series-clinching victory.

“The whole year leading up to today, Tommy’s been lights out,” said Haseley, a junior left-hander. “I had no doubt or lack of confidence in him, and 99 percent of the time, I think, he’s good enough to close out games like that.”

But in his 12th appearance, Doyle stumbled. He gave up a leadoff home run to Devin Hairston and then a double to Brendan McKay.

“I didn’t have my best stuff,” Doyle said. “I wasn’t on like I usually am.”

Later in the inning came a controversial call by home-plate umpire Greg Street, who ruled that a Doyle pitch had hit the batter, Colin Lyman. TV replays suggested the ball went between Lyman’s legs without touching his foot, but there’s no video review of such plays, and the call stood.

A two-error sequence followed, allowing another Louisville run in, and by the time the Cavaliers recorded the third out they trailed 4-3. That turned out to be the final score, and Doyle took the loss, his first this season, as UVA dropped to 21-8 overall and 5-7 in the ACC.

“It’s the life of a closer,” O’Connor said. “It happens. He’s been really, really good all year, and I’ve never seen one in college baseball that goes through the whole year [without] having a day like today happen, especially when you’re facing a really good club.”

Doyle was not used in either of the first two games in this series: Louisville’s 5-2 win Friday or UVA’s 11-2 victory Saturday. In his two innings Sunday, Doyle gave up two hits, struck out none and issued his first walk of the season.

Even so, said O’Connor, a former Creighton closer, “I thought he competed. It could have been a lot worse. They had guys at third base with less than two outs. He made a couple of really good pitches. That two-run inning had a chance to be a three-run inning. And they had opportunities again in the ninth.

“I’m proud that he found a way to wiggle out of it with just a little bit of damage. Unfortunately, it was too much.”

In 2016, Doyle started seven games before moving to the bullpen in early April. He pitched well as the team’s closer until the NCAA regional at Davenport Field, where he took the loss in each of Cavaliers’ final two games.

He’s better-equipped now, Doyle said, to deal with such setbacks.

“When you get experience with something, it’s always going to be easier the second time around,” he said. “Today is my first blown save of the year, and it happens. It’s baseball. You’re defined by how you come out the next time.”

Doyle probably won’t have to wait long for his next opportunity. The Cavaliers will play two midweek games at Davenport Field before hosting ACC rival Pittsburgh (13-12, 6-6) next weekend.

Virginia will face Old Dominion (22-6) at 5 p.m. Tuesday and George Washington (12-15) at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

The `Hoos are aware, Haseley said, of how well ODU is playing. “We know it’s going to be a tough and a battle,” he said, “but we’re ready.”

As disappointing as Sunday’s finale was for the Cavaliers, O’Connor saw much to like in the series with the Cardinals (24-3, 10-2), including freshman pitcher Noah Murdock’s effort Friday night in his second college start and senior Alec Bettinger’s work in relief Saturday.

Virginia’s “pitching performances were along the line of what we’re looking for,” O’Connor said, “and that’s why we were in every ballgame and had a chance to win all three games.”

In his seven innings Sunday, Haseley scattered five hits and struck out five.

“Adam was terrific,” O’Connor said. “He got us there. I thought we were going to maybe have to use Tommy a little bit early, but to Adam’s credit, he held [Louisville] at bay for seven innings and was really, really good.

“He did everything that he could today to give us a chance to win.”

O’Connor is not thrilled about Virginia’s 5-7 record in ACC play. It’s worth noting, though, that six of those losses came against Louisville, Clemson and North Carolina, three top-10 teams.

“I think we’re really, really close,” O’Connor said.

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