CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Virginia’s freshmen turned a corner earlier this year, providing the spark needed to lift the baseball team into the nation’s top tier. Entering regional play, no such adjustment period was needed.
That didn’t matter on Saturday, as the Wahoos rolled to a 9-1 victory against Army to open the NCAA tournament.
“As much as you tell them that this is another ballgame, obviously there is a lot at stake,” coach Brian O’Connor said. “Until you go through it and experience it, they’re not quite sure what they’re in for.”
Four freshmen started for Virginia, combining to go 4-for-12 with four RBI and four runs, as well as reaching base twice on walks and three times by getting hit.
Army kept itself in the game until the sixth inning, when the Black Knights (41-14), trailing 3-1, put runners on first and second with two outs. Sophomore Kyle Crockett was called in to shut the door in relief and struck out Harold Earls, the first batter he faced, to do just that.
“It’s not as much [pressure] as you’d think,” Crockett said. “In practice, I’m put in that situation all the time. Coach K [Karl Kuhn] will stand on the mound yelling, to try to rattle me.”
Crockett’s big out led to the ‘Hoos big break offensively as Army’s defense started to break down in the bottom half of the inning.
First was another hit batter, one of five in the game, something that Army coach Joe Sottolano said was a result of the U.Va. batsmen holding their ground.
“That’s an offensive philosophy, and it’s a tribute to their coaches,” he said.
O’Connor said it’s something the team works on. He’ll mix in softer, rubber baseballs that look like the real thing during batting practice, and drill players with them to make sure they’re “hanging in there” for their free base.
Keith Werman loaded the bases in the sixth by walking on a 3-2 count, right after a foul ball that could have been caught by Army’s left fielder.
Branden Cogswell delivered the decisive, three-run double in much the same fashion, hitting a ball about 330 feet that may have been caught with a more direct route by the right fielder. Army pitcher Chris Rowley was trying to survive with his change-up, he and served up one too many.
With the damage done, Virginia (39-17-1) put on cruise control, saving its best pitchers for the crucial games that await.
Atlee High School graduate Austin Young finished off the final two innings. The game was a continuation of yesterday’s rainout, and by the time it finished, 28 hours and 55 minutes had elapsed since the first pitch.
A day after working a scoreless first inning, Branden Kline returned to pitch into the sixth for Virginia. He rolled his ankle midway through that inning, but said it was just a momentary pain and didn’t affect him.
His outing helped save the bullpen. In an ideal world, Crockett wouldn’t have been needed, but after throwing just 21 pitches, he still is available to pitch.
The ‘Hoos face Appalachian State on Sunday at 3 p.m. in a crucial winner’s bracket game. The loser will have to play again at 7 p.m.
O’Connor will give the ball to Artie Lewicki. The sophomore has no NCAA experience, but like the rest of the team, has put up outstanding numbers down the stretch.
“I’m not concerned about that,” O’Connor said. “He’s going to go out there and be aggressive, and attack them. You’ve got to get your experience at some point.”
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