Brian O'Connor said Tuesday that his Virginia pitching staff couldn't be better entering the NCAA tournament. That doesn't bode well for the Cavaliers' opponents.
Indeed, if the pitchers mirror their regular season, top-seeded Virginia is a good bet to win its first national championship.
Consider: The Cavaliers' top starters — All-American Danny Hultzen, Tyler Wilson and Will Roberts — are a combined 27-4, and all boast ERAs below 2.50. Closer Brandon Kline (3-0) has 17 saves and a 1.85 ERA.
Need a fourth starter during the double-elimination grind of the regionals or College World Series? Cody Winiarski (6-3) has allowed only one home run in 69.1 innings.
How about a reliever to retire a dangerous left-handed hitter? Freshman southpaw Kyle Crockett from Poquoson High (3-0) averages one strikeout per inning and pitches to a 1.75 ERA. Right-hander Justin Thompson has been equally effective out of the bullpen.
Opponents are hitting a meager .212, and the Cavaliers' staff ranks among the nation's top five in ERA, strikeouts, walks and hits.
"I think our pitching's in great shape," O'Connor said. "We didn't overextend our (starters) in the ACC tournament. … I think it worked out perfectly. I think our pitching's in as good a shape as it could possibly be."
Rebounding impressively from three consecutive losses at North Carolina, Virginia (49-9) went 4-0 to win its second ACC championship in three years. No starter went beyond the seventh inning, and Hultzen beat College World Series staple Florida State in the title game.
So intense was O'Connor at the tournament that he considered pitching Hultzen, projected by many as the No. 1 pick in Monday's Major League draft, against North Carolina, even though Virginia already had secured a spot in the championship contest.
"That's why you saw our guys really get after it in that game," O'Connor said of the Cavaliers' 3-2 victory over the Tar Heels late Saturday night.
O'Connor used Kline to save the North Carolina game, this a day after Kline recorded a five-out save against Miami.
"We have so much confidence in him," Hultzen said of Kline. "It feels like we only have to play eight innings and that he'll be there in the ninth to close it out."
"It was huge," Hultzen added of the ACC tournament. "After that series at Carolina, we were all pretty upset with ourselves. … It definitely boosts our confidence a whole lot."
O'Connor has yet to determine his rotation for this weekend's four-team, double-elimination regional in Charlottesville. Virginia faces Navy at 1 p.m. Friday, with East Carolina and St. John's also in the bracket.
The Cavaliers are the most tournament-tested of the four. They reached the College World Series in 2009 and the Super Regionals last season, and their ace, Hultzen, is 3-0 with a 3.25 ERA in six NCAA starts.
Despite the stakes and unfamiliar opponents, Hultzen said he does not alter his approach in postseason.
"You have to take the same aggressive mentality," he said. "You can't put too much pressure on yourself. You can't get into your own head."
Virginia knows quite well that its No. 1 seed and Hultzen's elite draft status guarantee nothing other than expectations.
En route to the 2009 CWS, the unseeded Cavaliers handed San Diego State phenom Stephen Strasburg his only loss. Conversely, last year fifth-seeded Virginia lost to visiting and unseeded Oklahoma in a decisive Super Regional Game 3.
Additional evidence of the tournament's crapshoot nature: In the 12 years with a 64-team field, the only No. 1 seed to win the national championship is Miami in 1999. The only other top eight seeds to win were No. 6 Rice in 2003 and No. 3 LSU in 2009.
Reminded of those trends, O'Connor recalled improbable CWS champs such as Oregon State in 2007 and Fresno State in 2008, both of which were among the final at-large selections.
"Now is when you absolutely have to be at your best," O'Connor said. "If you're not, it's over. … There's not much strategy that goes into it. You're playing great people the rest of the way."
But O'Connor senses a "calmness" and "quiet confidence" about these Cavaliers.
"I've never seen this club panic," he said.
And don't mistake poise for lack of resolve. Virginia's vets still recall Oklahoma celebrating on their home field last June.
"Absolutely," Hultzen said. "That image has been in our heads all season. We don't necessarily talk about it, but as individuals we think about it all the time."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times