After having engineered 10 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament, Virginia coach Brian O’Connor knows the winning formula.
Hitting may come and go, but to survive and advance it’s all about great pitching and great defense.
In Saturday night’s 2-0 win over Elon, O’Connor’s Wahoos gave him exactly what was necessary to keep the Cavaliers in the NCAA Regional winner’s bracket. Technically one game away from hosting a Super Regional, Virginia is 2-0 this weekend after scoring a mere four runs.
Considering that UVa is one of the leading offensive teams in the nation, the fact it has eked out a 2-1 win over Army and a 2-0 triumph against Elon, may have raised a few eyebrows about the lack of run production.
With a lack of offensive firepower by the nation’s No. 6 seeded team, it has made pitching even more important.
Senior Scott Silverstein, the kid who pitched his way back to starting status after struggling early in his career, gave Virginia six solid innings before O’Connor handed the game over to freshman Josh Sborz out of the bullpen, before fireballing Kyle Crockett finished off the Southern Conference opponent.
Crockett, a 6-foot-2 southpaw from Poquoson, took over in the eighth and delivered the coup de grace for the second night in a row. Just as he mowed down the Black Knights of the Hudson with two shutout innings of relief on Friday, he handcuffed Elon’s Phoenix, striking out the side in the bottom of the ninth for his 12th save of the year.
Call him “Rocket” Crockett. Touching 92, 93 mph, he surgically dismantled any hopes of an Elon comeback.
“He is as good a lefty as we’ve seen all year,” Elon coach Mike Kennedy said about Crockett.
That’s high cotton praise from a coach who schedules aggressively against the likes of North Carolina, N.C. State, Kansas State, and Virginia Tech.
Kennedy wouldn’t be the first to point out Crockett’s arm. Florida State’s legendary coach Mike Martin believes it’s one of the best he’s seen this year.
O’Connor, who knows his closer best of all the aforementioned coaches, isn’t shy when it comes to talking about Crockett’s prowess under pressure situations on the mound.
“We’ve had some great closers here in the past, and no disrespect to them, but this guy is the best of all of ‘em,” O’Connor said. “And his results have shown that all year long.”
The All-ACC reliever has been remarkable all season, recording a 2.55 ERA in 19 league games this year. He became the first pitcher in UVa history to record saves in five consecutive games in early April (in the span of a week). He has struck out 68 batters and issued only six — count ‘em, six — walks.
“He’s a man of very few words,” O’Connor said, chuckling when thinking about how cool and composed his prized closer is. “He’s very, very calm out there on the mound. He doesn’t pump his fists or anything like that. He just shows great poise.”
Amazing considering that the kid is always playing under immense pressure.
His icy stare is followed by blazing heat when he’s called upon. Crockett’s 12th save ties for fifth-best on Virginia’s single-season saves list, matching Justin Thompson from a year ago.
It was a sure bet that when Sborz contained Elon in the seventh inning, O’Connor would be calling upon Crockett again even though he had closed out Army with two strong innings of relief the day before.
The Virginia skipper strongly believes that if his team is in position to win its first two games of a regional, then he’s going to pull out all stops to make an effort to do so.
“In a close game, you do everything you can to win that game,” O’Connor said. “Kyle Crockett has been our guy in every scenario like that this year.”
In fact, during that week in April, he came in to close out wins over Liberty and VMI in back-to-back nights, then did it again over three-straight days at Wake Forest. He pitched two straight nights against N.C. State and stretched it to three straight games against Miami.
Still, O’Connor wouldn’t commit to strolling his closer out Sunday night if necessary.
“We’ll see how [Crockett] feels then … see if it’s the right thing to do,” the UVa coach said.
We’re betting that if Crockett is OK, O’Connor won’t hesitate.
“I’ll be prepared,” the closer said with a big smile.
On a night when Virginia will be going for its 50th win of the season, what better way to make a splash than with the best closer in Wahoo history?