CHARLOTTESVILLE — Jared King’s three-run home run in the sixth inning Saturday provided the Virginia baseball team with more than enough cushion on an afternoon when its defense lived up to its billing as one of the stingiest in the country.
The Cavaliers’ 6-0 win over California Irvine in the opener of its best-of-three NCAA super regional series moved the top-seeded Cavaliers one victory away from advancing to the College World Series for the second time in three years.
“I thought we played a very good fundamental baseball game today. That’s what we’ve been consumed with the last couple weeks is just pitching good, playing good defense, and executing from an offensive standpoint,” Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor said. “We did that today against a very, very good club in Irvine. We have another opportunity to play tomorrow and we’ll strive to play the same kind of baseball we played today.”
An uneven outing by staff ace Danny Hultzen (St. Albans) and a 1-hour 24-minute rain delay preceded King’s blast. For Hultzen — who lacked his usual command while allowing three hits and no runs in 51 / 3 innings — the break gave him an opportunity to settle down.
Five days after the Seattle Mariners made him the second overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft, Hultzen walked three batters and hit another while requiring 59 pitches to record the first 11 outs of the game. Then lightning struck nearby, and the field was cleared.
When play resumed, Hultzen looked more like the two-time ACC pitcher of the year. He retired five of the final seven batters he faced, and one of those base runners originated from a passed ball after a strikeout.
Virginia’s defense made up for Hultzen’s initial shakiness. With runners on second and third and one out in the first, Irvine’s clean-up hitter, Drew Hillman, hit a slow bouncer to the left of the mound.
The runner on third, D.J. Crumlich, didn’t stray far from the bag as Virginia third baseman Steven Proscia fielded the ball and fired to first. The runner on second, Sean Madigan, did not show as much caution as he advanced two-thirds of the way toward third.
With a logjam evident, Madigan retreated to second. But rather than apply a tag, Virginia second baseman Keith Werman caught the throw from King and rifled the ball home, where catcher John Hicks tagged out Crumlich to end the frame.
“Our defense has really picked us up all year long,” King said. “Like Danny said, the double plays got the momentum right back on our side every time, and I think our offense really fed off of it.”
Hultzen’s counterpart, Matt Summers, entered the game with noteworthy credentials, as well. Summers’s 11-2 record and 1.72 ERA heading into the matchup nearly matched Hultzen’s marks of 11-3 and 1.57.
But just like Hultzen, Summers worked his way into a first-inning jam. With a runner on third and one out, Hicks hit the ball up the third base line. Irvine’s Brian Hernandez fielded and threw high to the plate, but catcher Ronnie Shaeffer corralled the ball in time to make the tag. The inning ended two batters later with no damage done.
Summers’s magic act proved faulty in the third when Hicks, again batting with a runner on third and one out, hit the ball into the same territory as he had in the first. This time, the slow roller forced Hernandez to eat the throw as Werman scored and Hicks advanced safely to first. Two batters later, Hultzen tallied an RBI single.
The score remained 2-0 until King stepped to the plate with two runners on in the sixth. King — who sat out last season after undergoing shoulder surgery — had previously hit only one home run at Virginia, a walk-off blast in the bottom of the 11th inning March 19 against Florida State.
For all intents and purposes, King’s home run ended Saturday’s game, as well.
“He’s definitely a great clutch player,” shortstop Chris Taylor said of King. “He’s come up with some huge hits this year in postseason and conference play. That’s kind of been his thing this year is when there’s guys in scoring positions or two outs, he comes up big for this club.”
The teams play again Sunday at 1 p.m., with Irvine needing to win to force a Game 3 on Monday.