A Poquoson High graduate, Crockett saved 12 games last year for the Cavaliers while posting an obscene – to hitters at least – strikeouts-to-walks ratio. Replacing him is the primary challenge for the nation’s preseason No. 1 team.
“This is no pressure on Nick (Howard) or Whit Mayberry or anybody else who may be in that role,” said O’Connor, entering his 11th year as Virginia’s coach, “but Kyle Crockett was, hands down, the best closer we’ve had here in 10 years. No question.
“We don’t come close to winning 50 ballgames last year without … what Kyle Crockett did. Five consecutive games for us last year … saved all five games. You really don’t hear that in college baseball. He’s special. I would not be shocked at all if he’s in the Major Leagues this year, and maybe at the beginning of the year.”
O’Connor spoke this week as Virginia prepared for Friday’s opener versus Kentucky in Wilmington, N.C., and closer was an early and repeated theme. No surprise there, given that the Cavaliers return eight position players, including their top five hitters, from a 50-12 team that advanced to an NCAA Super Regional, the program’s fourth such appearance in the last five years.
With more than 100 career innings each, Howard and Mayberry are Virginia’s most-seasoned pitchers and the leading candidates to replace Crockett, who finished last season with the Cleveland Indians’ Double-A affiliate in Akron, Ohio.
A junior right-hander, Howard was Virginia’s Sunday starter (6-4, 3.38 ERA) and primary third baseman (.323, 38 RBIs) last season. Also a righty, Mayberry is a fifth-year senior who missed much of 2012 following elbow surgery. He was 4-0 with a 2.45 ERA last year, working mostly in relief.
“Nick being a position player and being on the field every day, he knows what it takes to be ready every day,” O’Connor said, “and that’s a quality that a closer needs, because you could potentially impact every game that your team plays. He looks good. He’s throwing the ball hard. He looks like he did last year. …
“It’s always challenging when you don’t have a closer returning from the year before … because on a pitching staff, that may be the most important role in college baseball. If you look back at the College World Series last year in Omaha, all the games are 4-3, 3-2, 3-1, and who you have on that mound at the end of the game is pretty important. I like the options we’re looking at.”
O’Connor is right. The winning team scored five runs or less in 10 of the 14 games contested at last season’s College World Series. Indiana blanked Louisville 2-0 but fell to Oregon State 1-0. UCLA defeated LSU and North Carolina State, both by 2-1.
A closer during the early 1990s at Creighton, O’Connor understands well the role’s importance and prerequisites.
“I loved closing the most, because I loved coming to the ballpark every day knowing I could impact whether our team won or lost,” he said. “(That’s) a … quality that a closer has to have. … They (also) have to be resilient. They have to be able to put that bad one behind them and be ready to go the next day.”
With a 4-1 record, 1.70 ERA, 71 strikeouts and seven walks in 58.1 innings, Crockett’s “bad ones” were rare last year. And the five straight saves O’Connor mentioned? Three came on successive days as Virginia swept a series at Wake Forest.
Crockett was even better after the Indians drafted him in the fourth round, pitching to a 0.36 ERA in 21 combined appearances for three teams. He allowed one earned run in 24.2 innings.
“We were just talking about him in the other room,” said sophomore Brandon Waddell, Virginia’s returning No. 1 starter. “He was absolutely amazing. You handed the ball to Kyle and you had no doubt in your mind he was going to shut it down.”
Discovering someone who can approach Crockett’s dominance will, in large measure, determine whether the Cavaliers are as good as advertised.
O’Connor, by the way, isn’t the only who anticipating Crockett ascending to the bigs this season. Here’s a Fox Sports story out of Cleveland on the topic.
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