OMAHA — Lost in a whirlwind run to the College World Series, Connor Jones didn’t realize the number of innings he had pitched this season, about twice as many as last year. But while the sophomore right-hander was oblivious until recently, the Cavaliers coaching staff closely monitored the time he was spending on the mound.
With the heavier workload and the best-of-three final in mind, Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor decided last week that Jones, the Cavaliers’ ace the past two months, would not pitch three times at TD Ameritrade Park. After Jones started against Arkansas on June 13, he has had longer-than-normal rest for his start against Vanderbilt on Monday in Game 1 of the best-of-three championship series.
Caution might be trumped when a national championship is within reach, but Virginia is sticking to its philosophy and reputation for protecting pitchers’ arms for pro futures, even at the College World Series.
“It’s taken a toll; that’s the most innings I’ve ever thrown,” Jones said. “I can feel it. Your legs starting to get tired and stuff like that. . . . I think they’re handling it smart and the right way.”
The Cavaliers have survived nine weeks without a stable No. 3 starter. In their four games in Omaha, Virginia has gotten the three wins necessary to advance to the championship series with a combination of Jones, left-hander Brandon Waddell and closer Josh Sborz. With pitching depth a concern, Virginia’s coaching staff could have been tempted to start Jones on Friday night against Florida in hopes of bringing him back on shorter rest in Game 2 of a potential championship series.
But O’Connor stuck with his plan of limiting Jones to two outings because he felt “it was the right thing to do” and instead went with left-hander Nathan Kirby, who hadn’t pitched since April 17 because of a strained muscle in his back. The 10-5 loss to the Gators on Friday night forced an elimination game on Saturday, when the Cavaliers turned to Waddell on four days’ rest.
Pitching coach Karl Kuhn said the Cavaliers handled Waddell “with kid gloves” this season, so Virginia felt comfortable starting him on Saturday after he pitched on Monday. He also hasn’t been ruled out as an option for a potential Game 3 on Wednesday.
“We are a very judicious pitch-count group,” Kuhn said. “We develop our staff throughout the year so we can tax it at this point in time if we need to.”
Waddell has pitched at least 88 innings every year at Virginia, while Jones, who had few appearances in last year’s postseason run, pitched 54
Because the Cavaliers had to play an elimination game against Florida on Saturday, a thin pitching staff could be handcuffed for the championship series. O’Connor said he’s not sure if Sborz will be available on Monday after pitching four innings on Saturday, and he’s similarly non-committal on whether Kirby or Waddell will be ready to pitch on shorter-than-normal rest in the championship series.
With Vanderbilt off since Friday and needing only three games to get to the final, the Commodores will have their full arsenal of pitching available against Virginia. Vanderbilt Coach Tim Corbin has the luxury of already announcing who his Game 2 starter will be, going with ace right-hander Carson Fulmer on Monday, then left-hander Philip Pfeifer on Tuesday.
“I’ll jump off that bridge when we get to it,” Kuhn said of naming a Game 2 starter.
Virginia was cautious with its pitching before getting to Omaha. O’Connor said Kirby was medically cleared before the super regional series against Maryland, but he held off on pitching him until he was confident Kirby was built up enough through bullpen sessions to handle a start. When he did start him on Friday night against Florida, O’Connor still kept Kirby on a limit of 45 to 60 pitches.
When Virginia advanced to the College World Series in 2011, Cavaliers pitcher Danny Hultzen struck out eight of nine South Carolina batters through three innings of an elimination game, but when he said he was feeling ill, he didn’t go out for a fourth inning, as the coaching staff did not want to risk him getting hurt.
Not all teams are so careful. After Cal State Fullerton ace right-hander Thomas Eshelman threw 100 pitches in seven innings in a super regional against Louisville, he was brought in to close Game 3 two days later. North Carolina Coach Mike Fox came under scrutiny in 2013 when left-hander Kent Emmanuel threw 238 pitches across three tournament games in an eight-day stretch.
Virginia’s coaches won’t speak to how other programs handle their pitchers, but O’Connor and Kuhn have often cited an obligation to players and their parents as reasons why they’re wary of overworking arms, even at this stage.
“They’re not going to jeopardize a player for one year,” Waddell said. “That’s just not who they are and what they stick to. They’re going to care for your well-being, whether it be a national championship game or something else.”