Jake Berry is one of the last dudes I played with at UVA that is still standing, and let me tell ya watching him develop from the goofy 6’10 18 year old into an absolute dude on the mound has been so fun to watch. Seeing him close out a 2-1 regional victory made my whole year! pic.twitter.com/VSu0NpnA69
— Stephen Schoch (@bigdonkey47) June 4, 2023
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — He tries to stay as even-keeled as possible, but University of Virginia left-hander Jake Berry could not contain his emotions last weekend during the NCAA baseball regional at Disharoon Park.
At 6-foot-10, 235 pounds, Berry is an imposing sight on the mound, and he retired all six batters he faced Saturday night in the eighth and ninth innings of Virginia’s 2-1 victory over East Carolina. Twenty-hours later, he retired the Pirates in order in the ninth to close out an 8-3 win that sent UVA to an NCAA super regional the second time in three seasons.
Nine up, nine down.
“He was incredibly efficient,” Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor said.
Both games drew capacity crowds, and the volume level increased with every batter Berry sent back to the dugout.
“It’s something that I don’t really think I ever expected to experience,” he said. “My whole life, I never really saw myself as a closer and this year it kind of just happened that way. It was unbelievable. It was the most fun I’ve had throwing a baseball in my life. I was just grateful to be put in that position.”
After the final out of each game, UVA catcher Kyle Teel ran out from behind the plate to congratulate Berry. After the Cavaliers clinched the regional Sunday night, Teel leaped into the arms of Berry, who engulfed his smaller teammate.
“It was awesome,” Berry said. “Kyle and I have been together here all three years and Kyle is one of the best players in the country, and it was cool to share that moment with him. When it’s that big of a moment and when you care as much as our team cares, it’s really hard not to show emotion when you do something that deserves emotion.”
Berry, a graduate of Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, hopes to experience more such moments this weekend. Starting Friday at noon, UVA (48-12) is hosting ACC rival Duke (38-22) in a best-of-three NCAA super regional whose winner will advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
“It’s special to be playing in Charlottesville in June,” Berry said.
The Cavaliers, who won the NCAA title in 2015, made their fifth CWS appearance in 2021. Berry was a freshman that season, and he appeared in six games, all out of the bullpen.
In 2022, when the Hoos’ season ended at the NCAA regional in Greenville, N.C., he made 20 appearances, and eight of his nine starts came in ACC games. But the Wahoos’ weekend starters this season have been Nick Parker, Brian Edgington, Jack O’Connor (another Bishop O’Connell graduate) and Connelly Early.
After starring for the Hyannis (Mass.) Harbor Hawks in the storied Cape Cod Baseball League last summer, Berry returned to Grounds and competed in the fall and the preseason for a spot in the starting rotation.
“He did a solid job,” UVA pitching coach Drew Dickinson said, “but we just felt like that other guys at that time, I’m not going to say they were better, but they did a better job with more consistency. And when you think about what Jake can do, striking out guys, he would come out of the bullpen and be more effective than, say, Parker or Edgington, who haven’t really done it, and they’re not going to blow you away with their stuff.
“Did I think that it would have stayed that way the whole year? You never know. I thought maybe it would have worked itself out where Jake would have ended up being in the rotation, but those guys did such a good job, and then he did such a good job in his job as well, and you know how it is: If it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it.”
Like most pitchers, Berry would prefer to start, but “I’m so proud of him,” Dickinson said, “because he’s never let out anything emotionally or with his body language that led you to believe he was upset about his role. He’s always taken the ball and gone and competed as hard as he could for us and given his best effort, and he’s being rewarded for it at the end of the year. I think karma is a real thing.”
Against East Carolina last weekend, Dickinson said, “I thought Jake looked the best he’s looked, just in utter control of every pitch he threw in those two outings, in the biggest moments he’s ever pitched in.”
Of Berry’s 22 appearances this season, 21 have been in relief. (He pitched the first 4.2 innings of UVA’s 11-6 win over visiting VCU on May 2.)
“I definitely wasn’t expecting to be a bullpen arm this year,” Berry said. “I think that when they told me I was going to be out of the pen, the way I approached it was, all I can do is go help the team win and pitch the best that I can and [take advantage of] the opportunities that I get. If you look at it that way, you end up being rewarded for it.
“I think that a lot of pitchers, when they find out they’re not starting, can take it the wrong way. You can let it affect your body language on the mound, let it affect how you go about your daily business. And I think the biggest thing is just making sure that every time you go out, the job’s always the same: Go get outs.”
In last year’s NCAA regional in Greenville, Berry started what turned out to be the Cavaliers’ season finale. Against Coastal Carolina, he allowed no runs and only two hits through the first four innings. In the fifth, though, he faltered, and a pitching change followed.
“He was just running right through them,” Dickinson said, “and then he started cramping up … He was trying to fight through it, and he walked a couple guys and gave up a single, and we had to take him out, because of his body.”
Cramping affected Berry periodically last season—partly, he said, “due to a lack of water and partly because I just needed to be in a little bit better shape. I needed to put salt in my water and have more electrolytes throughout the game.”
That’s no longer an issue, and No. 32 has become an invaluable member of Virginia’s bullpen. Only sophomore right-hander Jay Woolfolk has more saves (nine) than Berry (six) this season.
“He bounces back pretty well,” Dickinson said of Berry. “He obviously went back-to-back nights [last weekend] and was just as sharp both nights.”
Dickinson, who’s in his fourth year at UVA, spent eight seasons on the University of Illinois coaching staff before coming to Charlottesville.
The tallest pitcher he coached at Illinois might have been 6-foot-5, said Dickinson, who remembers getting his first look at Berry on videotape.
“He was what you’d expect from a 6-10 guy, like a baby giraffe, arms and legs everywhere,” Dickinson said. “But I tell you, he’s sneaky athletic. He’s a really good fielder of his position, which you would never expect from a guy who’s 6-10. He can play basketball, he’s a solid golfer. He’s just so big. But he’s done a great job of being able to pound the strike zone with that big of a body, and I think it’s a testament to how athletic he really is.”
His mom stands 5-foot-11, Berry said, and his father stands 6-foot-6 and played basketball at Menlo College in California. One of his grandfathers is 6-foot-9 and played basketball (and baseball) at Northwestern University.
“It’s a tall bunch over at our house,” Berry said.
He played basketball growing up in Northern Virginia and at one point hoped to play hoops as well as baseball in college. “But as I got into high school, I had to go through two knee surgeries, and I didn’t even play my senior year of high school,” said Berry, who’s majoring in cognitive science at UVA.
There aren’t many professional pitchers taller than 6-foot-8, but what Berry has learned from watching them, he said, is that “all of them have very simple deliveries. And that’s something that since I’ve gotten here I’ve really worked on, just trying to simplify everything, because when you are as long as I am, if you have a lot of moving parts, you’re not going to have a lot of success and you’re just going to be very inconsistent. And I think that consistency is key in any sport, but especially in baseball. When I’m as simple as possible, I’m more consistent.”
Berry is “pitching some of his best baseball that he’s pitched for us in his career, and we have a lot of confidence in him,” O’Connor said. “But we have confidence in other guys as well.”
ECU’s lineup was loaded with left-handed hitters, which was ideal for Berry. “You will see more right-handed pitchers out of the bullpen this weekend,” O’Connor said. “You’ll see Jake Berry at some point as well. But every game you play the plan needs to be a little bit different based on the team you’re playing.”
This will be the second best-of-three series in the past six weeks between these longtime ACC foes. In late April, the Blue Devils took two of three from the Hoos at Disharoon Park. UVA won the second game 10-2, and Berry pitched the final two innings that day, striking out two and allowing no hits or runs.
Since that series, the Cavaliers have won 13 of 14 games, and they’re two victories away from another trip to Omaha.
“I know all of us are excited to play,” Berry said, “and hopefully we can continue to play the baseball that we’ve been playing. The offense has been great, and the pitching throughout the rotation, throughout the bullpen, has been really good all over the last three or four weeks. If we just continue to do what we have been doing, I think we’ll be in great shape.”
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