In an NCAA Tournament Regional, it’s important to win game one. Since 1999, 93% of college baseball’s regional winners won their first game.
It’s helpful not only to win, but for your starting pitcher to go deep into the game if possible too. With the double elimination format in play, a quality first start in the tourney helps preserve the bullpen for what could be up to four additional games.
With that backdrop in mind, it was easy to understand why there was some consternation among the Virginia faithful Friday afternoon at Davenport Field. UVA starter Alec Bettinger did not get off to a good start and it looked like a long afternoon could be in store. The concerns were short lived, however, as the Cavaliers eventually romped to a 17-4 win against William & Mary.
“Certainly it gives us a great deal of momentum to get off with a win,” Cavalier coach Brian O’Connor said. “Let me make this very clear, we’re here to win this thing not to place. Coach [Karl] Kuhn and I had conversations for days on what the right thing to do is and collectively we mapped this thing out and felt like Alec Bettinger was the right guy to get us off on a good start.”
Still, there were some anxious spectators after Bettinger allowed a run on two hits and threw 24 pitches in the opening frame Friday. After retiring the leadoff hitter, he surrendered a single and double to put two Tribe runners in scoring position. Bettinger fell into a full count on the next batter before Charley Gould grounded into a fielder’s choice play that scored the run and gave the visitors an early lead.
Bettinger got out of the inning against the next batter.
“They never really let me settle in, making me have some big pitches in some big spots,” Bettinger said. “Thankfully I was able to do that.”
It was a start eerily reminiscent to Bettinger’s start in the second game of Virginia’s final regular season series against Virginia Tech. In that outing, the junior hurler walked four batters and surrendered three runs in the first inning before buckling down for a quality start and a win.
Following a scoreless bottom of the first from the Virginia offense Friday, just like that start against the Hokies, Bettinger started to find the strike zone and attack the opposing hitters. When the fourth-seeded Tribe came to bat in the second, Bettinger retired William & Mary on just six pitches. Ironically, Bettinger sat down the side with just eight pitches in the second inning against the Hokies.
Over the next four innings, the Virginia right-hander threw 73 pitches, allowed one additional run, and only four hits. The Tribe’s only other runs came in the seventh inning off of reliever David Rosenberger. W&M designated hitter Ryder Miconi said the biggest difference he saw in Bettinger after the first inning was getting his off-speed offerings in the zone.
“He started mixing a lot more first pitch off-speed stuff,” Miconi offered. “We just couldn’t get anything together and get it across.”
O’Connor called Bettinger’s work the story of the game.
“That was a tremendous start by Alec Bettinger,” the Virginia skipper said. “He did a terrific job getting us started and giving us six innings. I think that there are guys who are givers to our program and Alec has been a giver for us all year. He started out the year in that closer role and made a nice transition into a starter, and has done a terrific job for us. He was very, very good after a difficult start down in Durham. The offensive club that he faced in Wake Forest is a really good offensive club and he just didn’t make his pitches and I thought he did today. It says a lot to what he did to go out there and give us six strong innings in the heat of the day.”
Maybe the most impressive aspect of Bettinger’s outing was his ability to shut down the Tribe with runners on base. William & Mary got two runners in scoring position in the first, one in the fourth, one in the fifth, and two more in the sixth. Despite having six runners in scoring position in those innings, the visitors scored just two runs. On the afternoon, they went 2-11 (.181) with runners on base.
“Honestly I was pretty pleased with our at-bats today,” Tribe coach Brian Murphy said. “We hit some balls hard, and we managed the strike zone pretty well. He was able to pitch with a lead that grew inning by inning, and his comfort level allowed him to throw some strikes and make the pitch he needed to make.”
Even though Bettinger’s record this season is 3-5, four of his losses in 2016 came as a reliever. Since moving to the starting role for the Hoos on April 10 at Boston College, Bettinger is 3-1 in eight starts and Virginia is 6-2. He has gone six or more innings in four of his last six outings and Hoos are 4-0 in those contests. In fact, the Hoos are 14-3 in Bettinger’s 17 career starts.
Part of what may make Bettinger so effective at limiting scoring with runners in scoring position is his time as a reliever. The Northern Virginia native made 23 relief appearances last season and 15 in 2016, the majority of those as a closer.
O’Connor said that experience of pitching in high-stress situations and doing so from the stretch makes a difference.
“I’ve walked in those shoes,” O’Connor said. “I started out as a closer and ended up as a starter. Branden Kline in his sophomore year was our closer and then transitioned to a starter. When you’re a closer, every pitch matters and it’s tense. So the lessons you learn from that can translate to when you’re a starter and you’re having to pitch in the clutch and make those difficult pitches like he did today.”