Virginia right-hander Whit Mayberry had not lost a decision in more than three years. In his most recent starts, he’d limited Florida State and North Carolina, top-10 clubs both, to four runs combined in 10.1 innings.
But as the Cavaliers batted around during the decisive third inning of Sunday’s NCAA regional contest against Elon, coach Brian O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn decided that Mayberry, in the midst of his worst outing since March 2011, was done for the night.
“I have to give a ton of credit to Coach Kuhn,” O’Connor said. “This guy is the best pitching coach in the country. The results show that for the last 10 years, and (he) and I had a long discussion in the bottom of the third inning about what we were going to do.
“He loves Whit Mayberry. I love Whit Mayberry. But the right decision … was to change the momentum of the game and get a different guy in there. That was Coach Kuhn’s decision to do that. … He was emphatic about making that move, and fortunately it worked.”
Like a charm. Given a three-run cushion after Virginia scored six times in the third, Kuhn’s bullpen blanked Elon over the final six innings as the Cavaliers cruised to an 11-3 victory that sends them to a super regional, baseball’s version of basketball’s Sweet 16, for the fourth time in five years.
“I’ve talked since the back half of the year about the strength of our bullpen,” O’Connor said. “Our starters have done a really nice job, a solid job all year long. But from a pitching standpoint, the bullpen is has been what has driven us to have the kind of record (50-10) we have had. It’s going to continue to have to be that way.”
Anchored by junior closer Kyle Crockett (12 saves, 1.68 ERA and the regional’s most outstanding player), the Cavaliers boast four oft-used relievers with an ERA 2.25 or better. The others are junior Austin Young and freshmen David Rosenberger and Josh Sborz.
The pen pitched 11 scoreless innings during the three-game regional sweep of Army and Elon (twice), and a rookie making his NCAA tournament debut was the star Sunday. Rosenberger, who hadn’t worked more than three innings all season, pitched five innings of two-hit, scoreless relief to earn the victory. He struck out four and, most impressive, walked none.
I asked Elon coach Mike Kennedy what made Rosenberger (3-0) so effective, and his wry response was brief: He’s left-handed.
The Phoenix start five left-handed hitters, and in two games against the Cavaliers, they did not score in 13 innings against southpaws. O’Connor was aware of Elon’s weakness but lifted the right-handed Mayberry because he “was not hitting his spots tonight like he typically does.”
Mayberry, a redshirt junior, missed much of last season after Tommy John elbow surgery. He is 4-0 this season and has won 11 consecutive decisions since a 2010 loss at VMI. He allowed three runs and several loud outs in three innings Sunday, his worst outing since Florida State touched him up for four runs in one inning two seasons ago.
Conversely, Rosenberger, an unheralded recruit from Bethlehem, Pa., hit his spots and lowered his ERA to 1.19.
“When we signed David Rosenberger, we knew that he was a strike-thrower, that he had an ability to throw a few different pitches for strikes,” O’Connor said. “He had pitched at a high level of travel baseball. … Our expectations were that he could come in and help us right away. And that’s what he’s done. …
“Rosenberger was just tremendous tonight. It was a pleasure to watch.”
As good as Virginia’s pitching was during the regional (four runs, 27 strikeouts and four walks in 27 innings), there is a caveat. Neither of the teams the Cavaliers defeated was College World Series-caliber.
Elon was No. 71 on the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index entering the tournament, Army No. 203. The Cadets finished third in the Patriot League during the regular season, while the Phoenix shared second place in the Southern Conference – both won their league tournaments to earn automatic NCAA bids.
No matter the quality of competition, O’Connor couldn’t argue with the result: advancing to a super regional in the minimum three games. National seeds North Carolina, Vanderbilt and Oregon weren’t as fortunate and face elimination games Monday. So do Mississippi State and Central Arkansas, and the winner of their game heads to Virginia for next weekend’s super regional.
“I think it’s important just to win three straight and get it over with,” O’Connor said. “Now our guys can lift weights (Monday) and regroup a little bit and get ready for next weekend. … We’re pretty much lining up with the same nine guys every day, position-player-wise, so to get them off their feet another day I think certainly will be beneficial.”
This marks Virginia’s 10th consecutive NCAA tournament under O’Connor, its third regional sweep. After each of the previous two, in 2009 and ’11, the Cavaliers won their super regional to reach the College World Series.
I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
Here’s a link to my Daily Press print columns, including Monday’s on Virginia’s 11-3 win over Elon.