Thursday, June 09, 2011
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia pitching coach’s lab work paying off

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- They used to joke that he was the University of Virginia baseball team's "special teams coach," a man obsessed with studying video and picking up the tiniest details to give his guys an edge.

Karl Kuhn would sit in that cramped room eight years ago -- it wasn't much bigger than a storage closet back then -- with his cheese and his deli meats, his bread and his peanut butter, his DVD player and his discs. And then he'd morph into the mad scientist.

See that guy? With two outs and nobody on, he always sells out for an extra-base hit. We can exploit that.

That one? Every time he bunts, he does it to the first-base side. Every time.

This team we're about to play? The coach loves to hit-and-run -- but only on 2-1 counts with one out. A good breaking ball here and we've got 'em.

Kuhn's laboratory is bigger now, an impressive video room with all the latest technology and access to two staffers who help him be more efficient. You can build those kinds of places when you win big and pack the stadium. And that's what the Cavaliers have done, thanks in large part to Kuhn's masterful work with this pitching staff.

Coming into this season, the Cavaliers had the lowest cumulative ERA (3.20) in the country over the seven years Kuhn had been their pitching coach. This year, they're even better. The staff's 2.34 ERA is second only to Texas in the national rankings.

If the Cavs are going to beat UC Irvine this weekend and advance to the College World Series, they almost certainly will do it with pitching. And they'll get plenty of strategic help from Kuhn, who's been breaking down opposing hitters on film since his days at Charleston Southern in the mid-1990s.

"You just try and find tendencies," Kuhn said. "Baseball players are creatures of habit. Hitters, pitchers, coaches they like to do things that work.

"A library is only good if you walk through the door. All the books are in there, but if you don't walk through the door, it's not a very good tool. You're only going to find what you're looking for on the video."

Weekend starter Tyler Wilson says Kuhn taught him everything from how to set up hitters to how to keep his arm healthy, stressing that the coach had been "instrumental in everybody's development."

Ace Danny Hultzen takes it one step further.

"He's been the instrument," said Hultzen, who was selected No. 2 overall in this week's draft and likely will start Saturday's Game 1 of the super regionals. "I wouldn't be anywhere without him. He's one of the most committed people I've ever met. I owe everything to him."

Kuhn owes a lot to a chance meeting with UVa head coach Brian O'Connor about 15 years ago at a high school showcase event in Indiana. Kuhn was an assistant coach at Arkansas-Little Rock then; O'Connor, an assistant at Notre Dame.

Their friendship and mutual respect blossomed, and when O'Connor got the UVa job in 2003, he asked Kuhn to join him on the staff.

"The best decision that I made when I hired him eight years ago was to allow him to do his job, to not interfere," said O'Connor, who had been a pitching coach for 10 years. "He has free rein with those pitchers, and he does a tremendous job with them. He just spends endless hours with them."

Kuhn has never pitched at a level above Little League. He was a catcher at the University of Florida who admits to being a "horrible hitter." He eventually became the team's bullpen catcher and gleaned some of what he does now from his pitching coach then.

Kuhn used his early coaching stops as a "chemistry lab," trying different strategies to see what worked and what didn't. When he got to the win-or-else level of the ACC, those experiences helped him become a solid mentor.

"His knowledge of the game, and knowledge of pitching in general, supersedes anybody that I've ever spoken to -- pitching coaches and coaches in general," said Wilson, a senior who is 8-0 with a 2.34 ERA. "He understands how to pitch more than I could have ever fathomed."

Kuhn said it's the players' passion for discovery that makes the difference.

"If you don't like triangles and geometric shapes, you ain't passin' geometry," said Kuhn, who last year won Collegiate Baseball's Tom House Teaching Professional of the Year Award. "These kids love baseball. They love the, 'Oh, gosh, I never knew that.' They love to find out something different. The credit goes to them."

Kuhn is only 42 and aspires to be a head coach one day if the right situation arises. For now, though, he's content being the mad scientist, the special teams coach in the dark room, the man O'Connor calls "the best pitching coach in America."

Kuhn smiles when informed of the compliment.

"Coming from the best head coach in America," he said, "that's pretty high praise."

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