Brandon Waddell stalked off the mound looking like he’d just punched out a biker for calling him pipsqueak and trying to ride off with his girlfriend.
I don’t know what inning exactly it was when I noticed the snarl on his face, because he did it more than once. Noteworthy, for a guy who’s been compared to Jamie Moyer for his mound demeanor. Home run or strikeout, he’s not usually too expressive. When you think about it, though, and apply that amateur psychology degree you’ve earned by reading enough message board prophets who can tell exactly how ready a quarterback is through his facemask, the nasty look is really just the natural extension of the quiet confidence that lets you not care what you just did.
I don’t get credit for this observation. Brian O’Connor does (and Karl Kuhn, to be sure) and the proof came two years ago when Waddell became the first freshman in whenever to start the opening game for UVA. Lots of pitchers with better stuff have rolled through Charlottesville in the past 10, 12 years. I’d venture to say few, if any, have his mental makeup. Branden Kline, maybe, though his mound presence was a lot more fiery. Brash, even. Whit Mayberry might be the closest I can think of.
The result of all that was one of the very best-pitched games I’ve seen, ever, out of a UVA pitcher. Odd thing to say about a guy who gave up 10 hits in 27 at-bats, and four runs. Don’t care. Waddell brought to Saturday’s game some of the least electric stuff he’s ever had, and he’s never been a “stuff” pitcher to begin with. His bender was generally indistinguishable from his change-up, and his fastball was nice and straight and so temptingly hittable. But he also brought attitude and experience forged in Omaha and postseasons past, and while his arm might’ve been on its C game, his head was A++ all the way. Maryland put runners on base in literally every one of his eight innings, but could never post a crooked number because in half those innings Waddell struck out the last hitter to strand a baserunner – or three. (A double play ended another inning, and a pickoff yet another. Both also very creditable to his amped-up focus.)
Cliché it is, but great pitchers pitch great games with their worst stuff. It looks a hell of a lot like that, in case you’re wondering. Ernie Clement got the headlines and the post-game interview for his enormously clutch game-winning hit. But nothing like that happens if Waddell folds in the first inning with the bases loaded, or the next inning, or the next, or the next and so on and so forth, or any of his eight innings of stubborn refusal to let the game slip away. Eight innings. 115 pitches. None of them would’ve lit up a radar gun or turned any heads, but watching a guy keep on bringing them, with a margin of error like a razor blade, and making it work time after time, that’s a privilege just to watch.
-- That game made for one of the oddest pitching duels ever. You think pitchers’ duel, you think half inning after half inning of 1-2-3 action, 1-0 scores, lots of K’s. You don’t think 5-4 game where one starter gives up 10 hits and four runs and the other leaves after four hits in 1/3 of an inning and lets his reliever pitch the next 7 2/3. Robert Galligan was masterful, though, even in having to throw three out of every four pitches off-speed because his fastball was an unpredictable mess. Between him and Waddell I swear I’ve never seen so much junkballing in one game.
-- Speaking of Galligan, Maryland coach Szefc took a fair amount of heat for not pulling him earlier. That’s a tough, tough call, though, man. UVA was not hitting him at all, and it’s hard to call it a bad idea to let him keep working on that. He’d just set down Matt Thaiss and Kenny Towns to end the 8th with very little trouble. And Kevin Mooney flat-out stunk on Friday, was (according to Eduardo Perez) wilder than wild in the bullpen, and hucked a warm-up pitch to the backstop. Mooney was put in a really, really tough spot, but he was pitching so badly – the curve that Clement knocked into left field was hung like a horse – that he’d probably have blown the save even if he’d come in to start the ninth.
-- I don’t like Maryland, I’ll never like Maryland, I want Maryland to lose even to Ohio State in everything – but the look on Mooney’s face was still pretty hard to see. Take the name off the front of the uniforms and you have to admit: they played a good series, gave UVA as hard a run as just about any team we’ve seen, and a one-two nut punch like that is as tough a way to lose as one can imagine.
-- Also, you’re doing it wrong when Maryland is wearing better-looking uniforms than you are – which was the case in game 1. Back to normal in game 2, though. The home-white font is probably my favorite on any baseball uniform, college or pro, so by all means, every time you win something really big, wear those.
-- Nobody ever says it, so I’ll say it: the umpiring was actually, on balance, good. Not perfect, but you can always find a ball-strike call to bitch about.
-- So was the announcing, if you had a magic button that muted Mike Patrick and only let Eduardo Perez speak. Patrick, other than being one of the rare announcers to make extensive use of the Hoos nickname, which is a good thing, was more or less senile. I’m not sure I can even count on two hands the number of times he botched a player’s position, team, or even which team was up to bat. The Saturday game took place on the 71st anniversary of D-Day, which it’s a good thing Patrick didn’t mention because it sure would’ve been confusing listening to him reminisce about the Germans storming the beach.
Perez, though, was absolutely loaded with insightful tidbits. He found tipped pitches, he would suggest X was about to happen right before X happened, overall he deployed a really excellent baseball mind for the benefit of his audience. One example: Perez noted that a particular throw to first was a really good idea. When Patrick asked why, Perez pointed out that on an 0-2 count it’s not uncommon for a runner to go on the first move, anticipating a (possibly in the dirt) breaking ball, and you might get a cheap pickoff that way. That’s the sort of thing I think all broadcasters should bring to a ballgame. Contrast that with ESPN’s lacrosse announcers who basically just host Lacrosse2Night during the game and ignore things like a 30-second call, which you know maybe you should explain to some of your viewers why one team just put the ball down for no apparent reason and the other team was allowed to pick it up.
-- Going to Omaha, the big big question is: Nathan Kirby? The answer is no, he's not going to start any games. BOC said as much, more or less, in an official-site interview. What he said was Kirby might be available out of the bullpen, but it amounts to the same thing. Kirby's only just started throwing bullpen sessions and his conditioning can't be completely up to snuff. He's not going five innings, probably not even three.
But. UVA has played five games, three of which has seen the entire bullpen consist of Josh Sborz. Alec Bettinger did nicely in relief of Waddell on Saturday, mainly because we were losing and Sborz was being held back for Sunday. If that had been an 8th inning rally instead of the 9th, Sborz would've been sent right back out there. The other game, game 3 of the regional, was all about Johnny Wholestaff, because Bettinger was getting shelled, and oh by the way Sborz pitched that one too.
So Kirby in the bullpen is a marvelous addition. In an ideal world, UVA wins all the time and pitches Connor Jones against Arkansas, Waddell in the next game, and brings Jones back for game 3, then lines up the finals with Waddell, Bettinger-and-company, and Jones again. In the real world, BOC has to plan for extra games, and too many of those is a major issue. Having Kirby available, with days in between games even if you lose - that can't be overstated.
-- The fact that we're even talking about this is unreal. Pinch me.