CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Virginia takes the field Friday to begin the NCAA baseball tournament, chances are the loudest cheers at Davenport Field won’t be reserved for Derek Fisher, the team’s home run leader, or pitcher Branden Kline, the Cavaliers’ top starter.
Instead, the crowd will roar when 5-foot-7 senior Keith Werman sprints to his familiar spot at second base or when he adds to his national-best 25 sacrifice bunts.
“I guess they like the way I hustle,” Werman said Thursday as the top-seeded Cavaliers prepared to face No. 4 seed Army.
Werman has turned into much more than the traditional underdog story. The Vienna native has become a symbol for this year’s team, a group that is relying on a small-ball approach in its quest to make the College World Series for the third time in four years.
Virginia set a school record for wins and finished third in Omaha last year behind a dynamic pitching staff led by two-time All-Met Danny Hultzen, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 MLB draft. Manager Brian O’Connor also had 10 players with a batting average above .300.
The star power isn’t quite the same this year, with Hultzen playing in the Seattle Mariners farm system and just five everyday starters hitting above .300 entering Friday’s double elimination regional in Charlottesville, which also features No. 2 seed Oklahoma and No. 3 seed Appalachian State.
Werman, a second team all-ACC selection, is batting .273 this year and, as recently as last week’s ACC tournament, got pulled in the bottom of the ninth inning for a better hitter. But that doesn’t seem to bother Werman or the Cavaliers, who have won 14 of their past 17 games.
Werman “is as fundamental a player as you will find in college baseball,” O’Connor said about his second baseman, who also started 10 games at catcher this season. Werman has just three errors and a .991 fielding percentage. “He gets every ounce out of his ability.”
Always “the small guy,” as Werman put it, he modeled his game after Derek Jeter and David Eckstein and learned the intricacies of bunting and moving runners over as a Little League shortstop playing for his father at Waters Field in Vienna.
An All-Met catcher at Oakton High in 2008, Werman endeared himself to the Virginia faithful when he emerged as the team’s scrappy second basemen toward the end of the 2009 season and then followed that up by batting .414 as a sophomore.
Last season, though, Werman battled through a prolonged slump and saw his average fall to .223.
“It was a grind,” Werman said. “It was tough mentally to come out with confidence because I knew I wasn’t successful at times. But all that mattered is we were winning. That kept me going.”