By Dave Fairbank
3:16 PM PDT, June 3, 2011
This time last year, pitcher Will Roberts was buried on the bench of a Virginia baseball team that finished one game away from a second consecutive trip to the College World Series.
His once-impeccable command had deserted him, and his confidence had taken a hit. But a summer pitching in the prestigious Cape Cod Summer League and another season to hone his craft placed him in the rotation of one of college baseball's monster staffs and earned him a start in the NCAA Regional opener.
Roberts more than justified the coaching staff's confidence in him Friday, hurling a complete-game gem as the No. 1-ranked Cavaliers blanked Navy 6-0 on a postcard-perfect afternoon at Davenport Field.
"It's really something special to me," Roberts said, "just because of how frustrating my first two years had been -- that they had the confidence in me just to keep going, because I know we've got a lot of good arms behind me.
"I think it was a big thing that I was able to go the whole game and save our bullpen, because you really don't know what's going to happen the rest of the weekend." Roberts struck out 14, walked no one and officially gave up just four hits, none after the fourth inning.
We say "officially" because the Midshipmen's last hit was a popup in the outfield grass that Cavs' third baseman Steven Proscia lost in the sun and fell alongside him.
"I just kind of got in a groove there," Roberts said. "I was spotting up pretty well on the outside half (of the plate). But I think the big thing for me was I was around the plate the whole game. I didn't put anybody on base, and I made everybody earn what they got."
Virginia (50-9) faces St. John's on Saturday at 6 p.m. in a winner's bracket game. The winner of that game will play Sunday for the regional title and a spot in next week's Super Regional.
The Cavaliers will pitch All-American and No. 1 starter Danny Hultzen on Saturday, though it will be hard for him to top Roberts' performance.
"It was awesome," said Hultzen, who drove in the Cavs' first three runs as a designated hitter Friday. "It was a lot of fun to watch. Will's had a bunch of outings this season just like today. He got ahead, he stayed ahead, and he put 'em away."
Earlier this season, Roberts (11-1) pitched just the eighth nine-inning perfect game in NCAA history when the Cavaliers blanked George Washington 2-0 on March 29. He had a streak of 26 2/3 scoreless innings, and Virginia is 14-1 in his starts. He graduated from mid-week starter to the weekend rotation.
Head coach Brian O'Connor said that he decided two weeks ago that Roberts would throw the Cavs' NCAA regional opener, thus saving Hultzen for the all-important second game that would put them in position to win the regional title with just one more victory Sunday.
"It's really been a complete transformation for Will Roberts," O'Connor said. "I think what happened is that he went away last summer and he just put his mind to (the idea) that he was going to come back and put it all together and show everybody what he's capable of doing.
"It doesn't surprise me at all that he's having the success that he is. I knew all along, at some point it would all come together for him. I was hoping it would be in our uniform and not at the next level."
Roberts, a 6-foot-4 junior right-hander, struck out the first two batters he faced and struck out six in a row during a stretch of the sixth, seventh and eighth innings.
Navy (33-24-1) had baserunners in three of the first four innings, but advanced no one beyond first base. The Patriot League champs, making their first NCAA appearance since 2002, were shut out for just the fourth time all season.
"He definitely located his pitches well," said Navy third baseman Greg Dupell, who had two of the Midshipmen's four hits. "I don't know if he got stronger during the game, but he definitely was consistent.
"He was throwing his fastball for strikes, hitting spots with his curveball for strikes and throwing his changeup pretty well. It's tough to hit a pitcher when he's consistent for nine innings."
Hultzen gave Roberts all the run support he would need with a two-run triple down the right-field line in the first inning. He drove home Chris Taylor with a two-out single in the third inning, and Kenny Swab followed with another RBI single.
Five of Virginia's six runs came with two outs, as the Cavaliers worked Navy starter Ben Nelson (6-6), who surrendered all six runs in 6 1/3 innings.
"We're not a team that's going to get 12 or 13 hits," Navy coach Pete Kostacopoulos said, "but sometimes we can get eight or nine and make it more (competitive). But they got out in front early on us. Will Roberts was not going to let us get back in the game."
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