Virginia pitcher Danny Hultzen has a closet full of individual awards, is the unquestioned bell cow of one of the nation's best teams, and possesses a ticket to the upper reaches of professional baseball when he concludes his stay in Charlottesville.
He's about as close to Big Deal and Can't Miss as baseball allows. Yet the person least taken with Hultzen the college star and Hultzen the pro prospect, is Hultzen the third-year student and earnest teammate.
"I'm focusing on helping this team win baseball games," Hultzen said a few days ago, discussing the buzz about his future. "There are times when it's hard not to think about that kind of stuff, but I try to keep focused on the team and put aside any sort of attention or focus on myself. I've learned that's not the right way to think. You can't think about yourself. You've got to think about the team.
"One day, it'd be my dream come true to play professional baseball, but that's down the road. I'm just focusing on the team right now."
Hultzen sets the table for Virginia's remarkable season thus far. He gets the ball every Friday night — befitting his status as the No. 1 starter — and hasn't disappointed. He is 6-0 this season, following Friday night's win at Virginia Tech, and averages better than 1 1/2 strikeouts per inning.
He has 26 career victories, one shy of the school record set by Jacob Thompson from 2006-08. His earned run average is a tidy 1.36, and opponents are batting a paltry .172 against him. He has 78 strikeouts and just nine walks in 46 1/3 innings.
The 6-foot-3 lefthander is markedly better than a year ago, when he was named ACC Pitcher of the Year and first- or second-team All-American by all of the major outlets.
"To sum it up, he's the best that I've coached on the mound, in my coaching career," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "I've been fortunate to be around some special guys, some guys that are making millions of dollars a year in the Major Leagues. But he's the best that I've been around. He has all the talent in the world, but he's a better person."
O'Connor is in his eighth season at Virginia and spent nine seasons prior at Notre Dame as pitching guru and recruiting coordinator. He worked with 17 pro pitchers, including Major Leaguers Brad Lidge and Aaron Heilman.
"He's a very, very hard worker, has all the intangibles that you want out of somebody," O'Connor said. "There's guys that have talent, but don't have the intangibles that it takes to really achieve greatness, and this kid has all the intangibles that you look for in somebody to be a very, very special player."
Those intangibles are embodied in decisions he made each of the past two summers. He turned down opportunities to play for Team USA and pitch in the prestigious Cape Cod League. Instead, he remained in Charlottesville to lift weights and to improve his strength and conditioning for the upcoming college season.
"The decisions that he and his family have made for the past two summers are completely in the minority for every player and every family in the country," Cavaliers pitching coach Karl Kuhn said. "You don't find that in this day and age, with kids who want, want, want, and families who want the limelight and the accolades. You just don't find that."
Said Hultzen: "After talking with the coaches and my family, we decided that it was probably better for me to take the summer off from throwing, because of all the pitches that I throw during the season. It would probably be better for me in the long run to stay at school and work out rather than pitching somewhere."
The intangibles of which O'Connor spoke might even date back three years. Hultzen was one of the nation's top high school left-handed pitching prospects as a senior at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., and a potential first- or second-round draft pick.
But he signed with Virginia and made it known to Major League clubs that he intended to go to college, meaning he wouldn't be eligible again for the June draft until after his junior year. The Arizona Diamondbacks still used a 10th-round pick on him in the 2008 draft.
"Going to college was something that was really, really important to me," Hultzen said. "I wanted to have the college experience before having a chance to play professional baseball. The experience of growing up. Off the field, you learn how to live by yourself, you learn to live away from home, you get a great education.
"And from the baseball part of it, you get coached by some of the best coaches in the nation, and you start to physically develop and get stronger and better."
Hultzen has put on between 20 and 30 pounds since he arrived at Virginia and now weighs approximately 200 pounds. He is able to maintain his velocity deeper into games — his fastball tops out around 95 mph — and his breaking balls are sharper in later innings than his first two years.
"He's gotten his man-muscles," Kuhn said. "He didn't have any whiskers when he was a freshman, and now he's getting a little bit of fuzz and starting to mature as a man."
Though Hultzen is a superior pitching prospect, he could be an effective everyday player. As a freshman, he batted .327 in 56 games as a first baseman, designated hitter and outfielder, in addition to going 9-1 with a 2.17 ERA on the mound.
Virginia's coaches limited his time in the field last season. He hit .281 in 57 at-bats, as he concentrated on pitching. This season, he is hitting .316 in spot duty and is fourth on the team with 19 RBI.
"He's as good as they come on the mound, but he's a pretty special hitter, too," O'Connor said. "He's very, very athletic. He can play first base, he can play any of the spots in the outfield. But because of his value to our team on the mound, we've got to be very careful about him as a position player, that we don't wear him down and he's strong at the end of the year."
The Cavaliers (27-2, 10-1 ACC) are poised for another postseason run. Despite losses from last year's team that spent most of the season ranked No. 1, they field a re-tooled lineup that's heavy on pitching and fielding and resourcefulness.
"We know that we're not going to hit home runs," Hultzen said. "We know that we're not going to score 15 runs a game. But we know that we're going to pitch well. We know we're going to play good defense. We just have to score enough to put wins together."
Heading into this weekend's series against Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers were ranked in the NCAA top 10 in ERA (2.00), hits per nine innings (6.51), strikeouts per nine innings (10.9) and fielding percentage (.986).
Hultzen played a big part in the team's first trip to Omaha and the College World Series two years ago. Last season he won starts in both the NCAA regional and super regional in Charlottesville, but the top-ranked Cavaliers lost to Oklahoma with a second consecutive trip to Omaha at stake.
"Getting there my freshman year was an unbelievable experience," Hultzen said. "Falling just short last year fuels our drive to get there again this year. Personally, I'll never forget the feeling that we had, both going to the World Series and then last year watching Oklahoma dogpile on our own field. I'm pretty sure that everyone on our team feels that same way — we're going to do our best not to let that happen again."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun