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OMAHA, Neb. – Crazy things can happen at the College World Series, even to Virginia ace left-handed pitcher Danny Hultzen, who typically mows opponents down from start to finish.
Hultzen had the interesting chore of facing a California lineup that, though not great, has performed at a high level in the postseason.
They tested his will early.
The Golden Bears took a lot of pitches in the first inning against Hultzen, running his pitch count up and inducing two walks. That surely doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but it was considering Hultzen had walked just two batters five times this season, much less in one inning.
His start had the ballpark buzzing, and not in a good way. In a College World Series that already has seen aces such as Texas’ Taylor Jungmann and North Carolina’s Patrick Johnson not exactly perform at a high level, was Hultzen next on the list?
The Perfect Game First Team All-American and Seattle Mariners third overall pick made sure that wasn’t the case. Despite walking two batters in the first, he got out of the jam with a strikeout of Cal first baseman Devon Rodriguez, ultimately setting the stage for what was a well-pitched game by the Cavaliers en route to an impressive 4-1 victory.
“It was a pretty crazy first inning. After a couple of walks and 10-pitch at bats, I was like this could be a long day,” Hultzen said. “I settled down after the first inning and got the butterflies out of my stomach.”
Though the Golden Bears continued to take a lot of pitches the rest of the way, Hultzen continued to get key outs. Most importantly, he walked just one hitter the rest of the game, finishing the contest with six strikeouts and three walks while allowing just three hits in 6 1/3 shutout innings.
“He just started showing better command on his off speed pitches and his fastball settled in a little bit after the first inning,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “They did a nice job out of the gate really battling against him, and then he realized he needed to be able to throw strikes with the home plate umpire having a true strike zone.”
California outfielder Chad Bunting, who went 1-for-4 with an RBI but didn’t have a hit against Hultzen, was impressed with what Hultzen took to the mound.
“He was good, he threw all of his quality pitches for strikes,” he said. “He kept the ball down but also knew when to elevate his pitches. He’s up there amongst the best pitchers we’ve faced this season.”
Hultzen was his usual self against the Golden Bears, tossing his fastball 92-94 mph with a changeup that ranged from 80-82 mph.
Outside of Hultzen’s fantastic performance, the other intriguing story line from the game was the Cavaliers going with right-handed pitcher Tyler Wilson, a usual starter, out of the bullpen after Hultzen’s 6 1/3 innings were finished.
Wilson, who was a key reliever before this season, had made just two relief appearances this season before his performance against California. Against the Golden Bears, Wilson struck out two batters and allowed just three hits in 2 1/3 innings.
Wilson’s relief appearance means he won’t start until the Cavaliers’ third game.
“Tyler and I had a conversation two days ago and I told him what my game plan was. If we had an opportunity to go with him at the back end of a game, we were going to use him in that way,” O’Connor said. “He understands what that is all about and fortunately we have a lot of depth when it comes to starting pitching.”
Virginia’s CWS opener began like many have for other teams in this tournament. But Hultzen and the Cavaliers pitching staff settled down and took care of business.
They set the tone for what they hope is a long stay in Omaha.
Player of the game: Virginia LHP Danny Hultzen – Hultzen didn’t get off to a hot start for the Cavaliers with some sketchy control early in the game, but settled down nicely as the game progressed and put together a solid start. He struck out six, walked three and allowed just three hits in 6 1/3 shutout innings. Hultzen allowed just one extra base hit to the Golden Bears and threw 113 total pitches, 62 for strikes. Additionally, Hultzen lowered his ERA to 1.41.
Turning point: The Cavaliers and Golden Bears were tangled in a fantastic contest the entire afternoon, with the two teams carrying a 0-0 score into the bottom of the seventh inning. The Cavaliers, though, struck first and turned the momentum their direction for good with a strong frame. Catcher John Hicks had an RBI single to start the scoring in the inning before third baseman Steven Proscia added a sacrifice fly to make it 2-0. The Cavaliers didn’t relinquish the lead.
Where both teams stand: With the win over the Golden Bears, the Cavaliers advance to the always important winners bracket to face the winner of the South Carolina-Texas A&M contest, while the Bears face the loser. Either way, with Virginia throwing right-handed pitcher Tyler Wilson in relief against Cal, look for junior right-hander Will Roberts to start next for the Cavaliers. He has had a tremendous campaign, sitting at a 1.58 ERA in 102 1/3 innings. The Golden Bears, meanwhile, likely will start Kyle Porter or senior Dixon Anderson in an elimination game.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org