In case you haven't noticed - understandable if for some reason this is your only lifeline to UVA sports - there's once again a pretty good baseball team playing at Davenport Field this year. Pitching is by far its strong suit, which will take you a long way, for sure. The team is 12-1 with the lone loss coming in a 2-1 series win against East Carolina. They're ranked as high as 6th and as low as 11th (college baseball has tons of polls) by virtue of three weeks' worth of strong showings, including a total dismantling of SEC semi-power Auburn.
All this without hitting a single home run.
It's a slightly new era in college baseball; metal bats continue to be used, but they're deader than they used to be. This probably bodes well for UVA, at least this year; Brian O'Connor has eschewed power hitting in his recruiting in favor of pitching pitching pitching and guys who can hit for really high averages. Making it harder to hit home runs gives UVA a little bit of an edge since that's not what the offense depends on.
Today we'll have a look at the pitching, and later this week, the position players.
Unlike last year when the Sunday starter was up for grabs a little bit at the beginning of the year, this year the weekend starters are engraved in marble. They are:
- Friday - Danny Hultzen. Hultzen is the guy Charlie Sheen wishes he was. Sheen was misquoted in his rantings; what he meant to say was, he has tiger blood and Hultzen DNA. Hultzen has a real chance to win every variation of national player of the year award there is, and will certainly be drafted with one of the top ten - maybe top five - picks in the MLB draft ths June. Even though he's leading the team in OPS and batting average and is second in RBI, his hitting duties will probably lighten up a little as the stretch run gets hot. Hultzen's pitching is what makes him valuable - he carries an 0.87 ERA so far and has struck out 36 in just over 20 innings. Yes. Almost two strikeouts per inning.
He did walk a batter once this season, though. So he has been known to throw the occasional pitch out of the strike zone. Still - it's not likely UVA will lose any of his starts this year, until maybe the postseason. To make matters worse for opposing lineups, Hultzen is a southpaw.
- Saturday - Tyler Wilson. Wilson has made a smooth transition from long relief. His 23-to-5 K/BB ratio would look pretty awesome if not for Hultzen's 36-to-1. Aw hell....it's still pretty awesome. Wilson's move out of the pen has created a few question marks in long relief, but so far the team has been able to handle it.
- Sunday - Cody Winiarski. A little bit of a soft-tosser, the start to this season has been tremendously encouraging as Winiarski has been striking out more hitters than last year. He and Wilson have started the year with ERAs under 2, and they share a .206 opponents' BA. A tough, four-run first inning against ECU was enough to tag Cody with the only loss of the season, but outside of that one inning he hasn't allowed a single run, and he's averaged 6+ innings in his three starts. Winiarski's hot start is the most encouraging sign of the whole season; if this kind of pitching holds up, UVA will have easily the best weekend rotation in the ACC.
- Weekdays - Will Roberts and Kyle Crockett. Crockett was probably the most-hyped recruit of the freshman class that actually made it to the season (Justin Nicolino signed with the Blue Jays and Tyler Skulina transferred before the season began.) Crockett won a few awards and such as a high school pitcher and had the added advantage of being from Virginia. UVA fans love a Virginian. But Crockett will spend most of his time in the bullpen and probably only get starts when the weekday schedule includes two games, such as in a couple weeks against Towson. Roberts is the main weekday starter. A junior, Roberts hasn't quite been able to pitch his way into the weekend rotation, but will probably be needed there next year. He's good enough for some emergency innings against ACC competition, if needed, and should be able to rack up the wins one by one pitching against the JMUs and Towsons of the world.
This looked like a question mark before the year began, with Wilson moving to the rotation, but events since then have solidified the outlook. The pen got hit by graduation - especially at closer where Kevin Arico was unbelievably dependable in 2010.
The new closer is sophomore Branden Kline, who had an excellent freshman season, especially late as the fourth starter in tournament play. Kline has yet to allow a run and has five saves already. There will be no problems here.
Whit Mayberry had a tough start to the season, but he's settled down nicely. Mayberry has starter's endurance and will probably be the primary long reliever this year. Kyle Crockett is the first lefty out of the pen and he's pitching well, too. Left-handed pitching out of the pen is much more readily available than it's been in the past - Crockett can provide a couple innings, if needed, and then there's Scott Silverstein. Silverstein's history of arm trouble is longer than O.J.'s rap sheet; multiple shoulder surgeries have kept him off the mound until this year. He made his first pitching appearance for UVA a little over a week ago. He's not gonna be rushed back, but he gives us a situational lefty.
Justin Thompson is another guy we'll see plenty of, though he's more likely to be primarily a weekday reliever. And the freshman class brought a lot of arms that we've already seen a little of and will get a few innings here and there - guys like Ryan Ashooh and Austin Young.
No doubt, pitching is where this team will draw its success from. As you'll see a little later, the batting lineup isn't quite the murderers' row it's been in the past, but given the choice between OK hitting and awesome pitching, or the opposite, I'll take the awesome pitching every time. The new bats should help this staff - not that they need much help - to keep their numbers down. Except for their strikeouts. Strikeouts will be up; Danny Hultzen is rapidly climbing the all-time list at UVA. I'm very confident in calling this the best rotation in the ACC, and if the bullpen continues to pitch the way they started the season, they'll be able to claim the same crown.