CHARLOTTESVILLE — Bored on the eve of his team's NCAA tournament opener Friday, Virginia baseball coach Brian O'Connor wandered up to the press box at Davenport Field and held court. The topic on which he was most animated: Cavaliers closer Kyle Crockett.
Crockett's superb repertoire — mid-90s fastball, filthy slider, precise control — is a given. But O'Connor then demonstrated how well Crockett, a junior from Poquoson, hides the ball with his southpaw delivery.
Great stuff that's difficult for hitters to pick up? The combination is often unfair.
Closing a rare college pitchers' duel, Crockett was at that overpowering, deceptive best Friday as Virginia defeated Army 2-1.
"We faced him last year I believe in relief," Cadets coach Joe Sottolano said, "and I didn't like him much then either. … He threw hard (today), down in the zone. He's one of the better (left-handers) in the country."
Indeed, Crockett pitched 1.1 scoreless innings against Army in last season's NCAA tournament. But that was during a 9-1 blowout. This was in a taut game ruled by the respective starters: Cavaliers freshman Brandon Waddell and Cadets senior Chris Rowley.
With aluminum bats and sketchy pitching, college baseball produces far more 9-8 scores than 2-1. To wit: Friday was Virginia's 46th NCAA tournament game in 10 seasons under O'Connor, and the only other 2-1 final was a 2005 loss to Ohio State in Corvallis, Ore. — even a 2009 encounter with San Diego State's Stephen Strasburg ended in a 5-1 Cavaliers victory.
There were no Strasburgs in sight Friday, but the pitching was refreshingly first-rate.
In perhaps his final Army appearance, Rowley (20-5 combined the last two years) labored through seven innings and 122 pitches against the ACC's No. 2 offense (8.1 runs per game), but managed to keep the Cavaliers in check.
"The guy really, really knows how to pitch," O'Connor said. "His stuff isn't overpowering. He made the big pitches today to give his team a chance to win."
After yielding Virginia's two runs in the fifth inning, Rowley still faced a bases-loaded jam with none out. But he escaped by striking out Brandon Downes and Derek Fisher, after which center fielder Jacob Page ran down Reed Gragnani's line drive in the right-center gap.
"He had three strikeouts," Sottolano said. "Two were with the bases loaded. That's pitching."
Rowley has professional potential, but as a West Point graduate, he won't have the luxury of pursuing those aspirations immediately.
"My obligation is five years active duty with the United States Army," Rowley said proudly.
That means heading to Fort Sill, Okla., for field artillery officer training and then to Fort Stewart, Ga.
As good as Rowley was, Waddell (6-2) was better. He struck out eight, walked none and allowed only three hits in seven innings.
Army's lone run came in the fifth inning when second baseman Grant Van Orden's one-out suicide squeeze plated Page. Waddell retired the final eight hitters he faced.
"I thought he was in complete control mentally," Virginia catcher Nate Irving said. "That's been one of the great things about him this year. … I think this is just an example of how mature he is, mature as a ballplayer and as a person."
O'Connor would have preferred to save Crockett for later in the double-elimination regional — Virginia (48-10) plays 6 p.m. Saturday against Elon — but in a one-run contest, he turned to his closer, as usual.
Army (29-22) touched Crockett for two hits in the eighth, one an infield single, to move the tying run into scoring position. But Crockett induced a ground out from Alex Jensen before striking out the side in the ninth for his 11th save. He threw 31 pitches, 26 for strikes.
Likely to be chosen in the top five rounds of this summer's Major League draft, Crockett is Virginia's best pitching prospect. But unlike many past seasons, the Cavaliers are not stocked with lights-out arms, leaving them to win with wits and control.
"Our starting pitching all year long has kept us in the ballgame," O'Connor said. "There's been times it's been dominant, but not very often. … I have confidence in our bullpen. To win 48 out of the 58 games you've played, you must have good pitching."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun