Many outlets are revisiting sports of years past and reminiscing about what could have happened if something and broke in their teams favor. What if a recruit had come to UVa? What if Vic Hall had played QB more? What if Tony Bennett recruited a really good point guard in 2018? The results and debate are endless.
Baseball is no exception.
In 2011 the Virginia Cavaliers were riding high. They raced to a 49-9 record and 22-8 ACC record during the regular season. They went 4-0 in Durham to win their second ACC Tournament title in three years. They entered the NCAA Tournament as the #1 National Seed and rolled through the Charlottesville regional outscoring Navy, St. John’s, and East Carolina combined 29-3 over three games. They had walked off UC Irvine in the Super Regional thanks to Chris Taylor to get to the program’s second College World Series.
By the time the team got to Omaha they were the odds on favorite to win the national championship. They were led by Danny Hultzen, who was a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award (college baseball’s Heisman), and had been drafted No. 2 overall in the MLB Draft a few weeks earlier. At the end of the season he had a 12-3 record, a 1.37 ERA, and a 0.84 WHIP. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Hultzen pitched UVa to an opening round 4-1 win over Cal-Berkeley allowing only 3 hits over 6.1 innings and striking out six.
UVa would fall to South Carolina in their next game before rebounding in a dominant 8-1 win over Cal again in the loser’s bracket. Hultzen didn’t pitch in either game and was set up to face the Gamecocks to save UVa’s season.
Hultzen was as advertised. He struck out 8 over three innings while walking none and allowing only 1 hit. The Hoos scored a run in the 2nd inning to take a 1-0 lead and Hultzen had only thrown 40 pitches to that point. From the onlooker’s perspective, he seemed capable of holding U of SC down for a long stretch before handing it to the dominant UVa pen.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, Hultzen would be relieved by Kyle Crockett in the 4th, allowing two runs and giving up the lead.
Coach Brian O’Connor would say after the game that Hultzen was “under the weather.”
UVa and South Carolina would battle over 13 innings with UVa’s pen holding down the Gamecocks to just 3 runs over the final 10 innings—in any other setting, you’d think that would be enough to win. But Virginia was unable to score any runs in extra innings, despite loading the bases in each of the 10th, 12th, and 13th innings. Two throwing errors by Virginia in the 13th ended the season in anticlimactic fashion.
What if Danny Hultzen had not gotten sick in Omaha for that game?
Based on just how strong he looked in the first three innings, it’s quite possible that Hultzen throws 6 or 7 shutout innings before handing the ball to Crockett and Branden Kline to shut down U of SC. Kline had already racked up 18 saves that season and could have come in for just two innings if needed. Even in that game, Kline pitched 5.0 innings, striking out 7 and allowing no runs,
With Hultzen on the mound dealing, you can look to Virginia’s offense for greater production. With confidence in their pitcher holding down the opposition and relieving a little pressure, it’s possible Virginia’s bats would have resumed what they had been doing throughout the postseason, including both the regional and twice in the CWS against Cal. You likely wouldn’t have needed extra innings.
In other words, the game would have been in Coach O’Connor’s hands.
With that win, the Hoos would still have had to beat South Carolina again the next day to advance to the championship series to take on the Florida Gators, but with the bullpen rested and Will Roberts looking to make up for a tough start earlier against the Gamecocks, anything would have been possible. It was only a few months prior, after all, that Roberts had pitched the eighth nine-inning perfect game in NCAA history, the first for the Cavaliers.
So, what if Danny Hultzen had not gotten sick in Omaha for that game?
Maybe nothing, sure.
Or maybe, it would have been just enough to send Virginia to its first-ever championship series. Maybe even something more. Luckily, it wouldn’t be too long before the program and fans got to enjoy that sweet taste of a national championship.