Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: No. 1 Cavs’ dominance starts on the mound

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The dominance that is Virginia baseball can be a little overwhelming if you don't follow it every day. So just to be clear, let's start by separating Saturday's starting pitcher from some other guys who've been making headlines this season.

Tyler Wilson is not the UVa pitcher who threw the perfect game earlier this spring. That was a different right-hander, Will Roberts, who will start today's series finale against Miami. The Cavs ought to feel pretty good about that one, considering Roberts is 9-0 with a 1.43 ERA.

Wilson also is not the guy the Pittsburgh Pirates -- who have the No. 1 overall pick in next month's MLB draft -- sent their general manager to scout here Friday night at Davenport Field. That was lefty Danny Hultzen. He's the one who ranks second nationally in strikeouts and also starts at DH. Better catch that electric junior while you can; you'll be hard-pressed to find any mock draft out there that has Hultzen going any lower than No. 4 overall.

No, Wilson is the OTHER weekend starter.

And he still hasn't lost a game this year.

That was Wilson pointing to the sky and jogging off the mound to a standing ovation from nearly 4,000 fans here Saturday. In a game his coach would call UVa's biggest of the season to this point, the senior tossed 7 23 spectacular innings against the Hurricanes. He allowed no runs on just one hit and one walk. He took a perfect game into the sixth. Using a 90-mph fastball, a wipeout slider and an occasional change, he struck out 11 -- and made it look easy -- in the Cavaliers' 3-2 victory.

Why is UVa ranked No. 1? This is a big reason. The depth of their pitching staff is absurd. And even after a rare loss by Hultzen on Friday -- just the fourth at home all year for the Cavaliers (44-6, 21-5 ACC) -- UVa knew it could turn to its senior for an effort like this.

"So proud of him," UVa coach Brian O'Connor said. "When his team needed him the most ... Willy comes in today and pitches as good of a game as he's pitched all season long. That just proves what this kid's made of."

And it underscores what kind of program O'Connor has built -- and more importantly, sustained -- here at Virginia. The Cavs are leading the ACC in ERA by a wide margin, but they also came into this series tied for the top spot in batting average (.314). And on a day they managed just six hits against three Miami pitchers, they still found a way.

They won with two-out RBIs from Hultzen, Keith Werman -- who's been struggling this season after leading the team in hitting last year -- and John Hicks. They won it with great catches, like David Coleman's sliding grab on the bullpen mound during a tense ninth inning. They won it with error-savers, like Jared King's scoop of a low throw at first base for the final out.

Remember, this is a program that had a school record nine players drafted last year. Only two (Wilson and outfielder Kenny Swab) are still here. Yet still the Cavs have reassumed the No. 1 ranking they held much of last year in three of college baseball's four major polls.

"I could never have imagined it being this good," said King, a Radford native and former Pulaski County star. "I know when I committed here they had reached No. 3 or something and had a couple of 45-win seasons, but since I've been here it's continued to get better. I couldn't have asked for anything better."

King, a junior, missed all of last season after shoulder surgery. His two hits Saturday lifted his average to .350, making him one of five UVa regulars over .300.

They're all hitting, all pitching and all feeding off the energy of this crowd that senses something special.

"For the fans to come out on a day like today where it's a little overcast -- nobody knows it's actually going to start on time -- and to bring the energy that they brought was big for us," Wilson said. "It's like we expand and make more seats and more people keep showing up. Every year, the fan base has gotten stronger and stronger."

Much like this program.

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