OMAHA, Neb. – After almost 4½ hours of edge-of-your-seat baseball, the natural reaction once South Carolina finally found a way to get past Virginia in the 13th inning Friday night in a College World Series semifinal round game was almost universal.
Once the outcome soaked in a little, though, and especially after Cavaliers’ coach Brian O’Connor took a stab at explaining why ace Danny Hultzen was lifted after only three innings – three of the most dominant innings imaginable – the first thought that jumped into my head was a little different.
The explanation given during the game was that Hultzen, a dazzling left-handed pitcher picked by Seattle with the No. 2 pick in this month’s Major League Baseball Draft, had some strain of flu that apparently hit him Friday morning. Shots of him on TV between innings verified that the kid didn’t look like he felt good.
But he sure didn’t show any effects of the illness on the mound.
For the first two innings, the Gamecocks could barely get a bat on the ball. A couple of foul balls was all they mustered as Hultzen blazed fastball after fastball by them and struck out the first six hitters on only 24 pitches.
Peter Mooney finally put a ball in play to start the third inning and the Cavaliers’ defense might’ve been as surprised as anybody as the bloop fell for a single just past second base.
When the third frame ended, Hultzen had eight Ks and it was clear Carolina was in a lot of trouble.
“It was really a mismatch,” Gamecocks’ coach Ray Tanner said. “We didn’t have an answer. He was that good.
“It would have been hard to scratch had he stayed out there.”
That’s the thing, though: He didn’t stay out there.
As the Virginia half of the fourth inning finished, reliever Kyle Crocket trotted out of the Cavs’ bullpen to the mound, Hultzen’s night – and as it turned out, his college career – over in a flash.
Not to beat a dead question … but why?
Afterward, O’Connor confirmed the illness and said the plan going in was for Hultzen to have a short stint – long enough to get UVa off to a good start.
OK, so, yes, he was sick. But O’Connor continued, saying he didn’t want to put Hultzen’s career in jeopardy.
“If we don't win a national championship, we don't win a national championship,” O’Connor said, then later added “Bottom line is I made the decision what was right for Danny Hultzen vs. trying to win a championship.”
In baseball parlance, I lost that one in the lights.
I’ve met and spoken to O’Connor a few times and really like the guy a lot. Covering one of his best friends in the business, LSU coach Paul Mainieri, I see a lot of similarities in style and the way they care about the right things.
And I don’t have any doubt in the validity of O’Connor’s explanation. I believe wholeheartedly he had Hultzen’s best interest in mind.
Here’s what baffles me. If the kid is that sick but throwing the way he was, why not let him go as long as he thought he could go.
Even O’Connor pointed out, the CWS is all about the players’ memories. Now the final memory the Cavaliers are left with is of a gut-wrenching loss. Had Hultzen stayed in a little longer with the way he was throwing, it’s not a stretch to say Virginia beats Carolina and forces a second game.
Yes, it’s admirable that O’Connor wanted to protect Hultzen. If my daughters are good enough to be an NCAA athlete someday, I hope they play for a coach as honorable as O’Connor.
But to me, the minute Seattle snared Hultzen with the No. 2 pick of the draft, he became the ultimate decision-maker in matters of his health and his future.
Now, if O’Connor went to Hultzen and asked him “Can you give us anything else?” and the pitcher said no, then OK. I applaud him for being mature enough and team-savvy enough to realize and understand the Cavaliers were better with him handing the ball off to somebody else.
I just wish that would’ve been revealed if something like that happened.
Anything short of a scenario like that, though, it’s hard to figure why Hultzen’s night ended so soon.
That’s a big why that could haunt O’Connor for quite a while.