One of the key figures to Virginia’s postseason baseball hopes, at least in the collective minds of the Cavaliers’ coaching staff, might surprise the fan base heading into this afternoon’s NCAA Regional play.
Whit Mayberry certainly isn’t the flamethrower on the mound that some of his teammates may be. He isn’t overpowering, and he’s certainly not a vocal guy.
He could just be a difference-maker in helping UVa advance to the Super Regionals.
How important a role could Mayberry play in the Cavaliers’ game plan?
“Huge,” said UVa pitching coach Karl Kuhn.
“Whit’s going to have to go out and pitch like he did the past couple of weeks,” added Cavaliers’ head coach Brian O’Connor. “He showed us that he’s ready to beat a really good opponent.”
O’Connor realized all this a few weeks ago when starting shortstop Branden Cogswell broke a finger. He has been out of action ever since. The chain reaction to the team dynamic went like this: third baseman/part-time pitcher Nick Howard moved to shortstop; Kenny Towns stepped into the third base slot and Mayberry was moved into the starting pitching rotation so as to not overload Howard’s responsibilities.
Since being called upon, Mayberry has delivered two strong starting appearances at No. 1 North Carolina, and against Florida State in the ACC Championships. The redshirt junior right-hander is scheduled to be one of UVa’s starting pitchers in this weekend’s rotation and if he can give his teammates another strong outing, it would be a major contribution for more postseason aspirations.
“I’m really excited, not only for myself but mostly for this team,” said Mayberry, who owns a 4-0 record and a 2.05 ERA this season. “We’ve worked all year for this moment.”
Some wondered if this moment might ever arrive again for the youngster from Alexandria after he suffered a serious elbow injury last season and struggled to return to form earlier this year.
The coaching staff expected Mayberry to come into his own last season after a strong showing in the 2011 ACC Championships. He took the mound against North Carolina and struck out six of nine Tar Heel batters over three innings.
“That was his coming out party,” Kuhn remembered.
Good timing. It was also Mayberry’s birthday.
Hoping to build on that flash, the young righty was cruising along just fine last season until he felt something uncomfortable in a series against Virginia Tech. It was an elbow injury that would require Tommy John surgery.
“Whit was as consistent as you can be during the first half of last season before he got hurt,” O’Connor said. “Even when he did get hurt, he tried to pitch through it. Most kids would have said, ‘Send me in and get Tommy John surgery and get it over with. He tried to keep pitching but couldn’t do it.”
Mayberry had never been injured so the whole idea of arm surgery and rehab was completely new to him. Admittedly scared and concerned about his future, he showed doctors and trainers that he’s just as coachable off the field as he was on it, following their recovery schedule to the letter.
Patience was a virtue, but of course he had already shown that, waiting his turn behind a loaded Wahoo pitching staff his first two years.
“He was basically behind almost what amounted to at the time as a Double A pitching staff,” Kuhn said.
Mayberry studied the golden-armed Danny Hultzen and others such as Will Roberts, Tyler Wilson, Branden Kline, and others, not only about how they went about their business in games or practices, but away from baseball.
“That really helped me develop,” Mayberry said, just watching how humble those guys were, but played at such a high level. I figured if I could try to emulate them, well, then I’d be on a pretty good track.”
Mayberry underwent elbow surgery on April 3, 2012, and started his long journey back, not making any competitive pitches until early January. Because he had taken incremental steps, nothing was too horrifying about getting back to normal until the season actually began.
“Whit came back and the velocity was not the same but the stuff was still there, in addition to the attention to detail,” O’Connor said.
The coaches were a bit alarmed.
“We just didn’t know,” Kuhn said. “He had a little setback and we weren’t quite sure how he would respond.”
The fact that it has been an atypically cold spring and Mayberry did not exhibit the velocity the coaches were accustomed to seeing from him early on, made them reserve judgment until later in the season.
“I don’t know if it was the cold weather or he just couldn’t get going, but it was hard,” Kuhn said. “He was not what we remembered Whit Mayberry to be, but he still got outs.”
No wonder O’Connor smiles every time Mayberry’s name comes up today. Here’s this kid, clearly not himself, but pitching his tail off, throwing the ball exactly where he was supposed to, refusing to beat himself.
Coaches couldn’t have asked for more from Mayberry, who made a strong impression on younger players on UVa’s team. He’s out there playing as if he’s got one arm tied behind his back in a fight and still getting opponents out.
“Then all of a sudden, here he is down the home stretch of the season and he pops,” Kuhn chuckled. “It’s back, he’s healthy, it’s warm, and I expect him to do exactly what he’s been doing for this team for the rest of the way.”
Mayberry certainly popped against the Tar Heels and Seminoles over the last couple of weeks and now he’s on center stage at the most important time of the season.
“I’m just going to try to do exactly what I’ve done all year and that’s stay loose, stay aggressive, and focus on the fundamentals,” said the 6-foot-1 righty, who mixes his off-speed stuff with fastballs.
He’s not as concerned with velocity as throwing strikes and making batters hit him to beat him.
Mayberry is no dummy. In fact, he graduated from UVa’s prestigious Commerce School in four years and has been accepted into the Curry School of Education, the same program that fellow Wahoo pitcher Scott Silverstein just completed.
“He’s a bright kid, a leader,” O’Connor said. “Not a vocal leader, but one who does it by example. He just does things the right way.”
“He’s just a strike thrower,” Kuhn said of the 6-foot-1 hurler from St. Stephens-St. Agnes. “He’s a tough man to hit, man. He really is.”
Mayberry, who is planning on returning to UVa’s squad for his final year of eligibility, may be a huge contributor to just how far this young Cavaliers team advances.
“We’ve learned from the past and we’re ready,” Mayberry said. “This is a new team and it’s our time.”