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May 19, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Will Roberts expects to receive a double shot of adrenaline this weekend.
The right-hander will pitch the final game of Virginia’s series at North Carolina on Saturday and that would usually be enough excitement in itself.
After the game, the team will return home to Charlottesville and on Sunday Roberts will participate in graduation ceremonies. He completed work for his economics degree in three years.
This has been a season to remember for Roberts. Not only does he carry a 10-0 record into Saturday’s game, which will wrap up the ACC regular season for both teams, but he earned a measure of celebrity when he pitched a perfect game against George Washington on March 29. (Click to Watch Video Highlights of the perfect game on VirginiaSports.com)
“I’m still hearing from people about it,” Roberts said. “They’ve made three or four T-shirts about it on campus that they sell at the bookstore, which I think is kind of ridiculous but at the same time it’s flattering that people think that much of that game.
“I really try not to dwell on it. I really enjoyed it for that one week but now I’m putting it on the back burner. Maybe after the season I’ll look back at it and reflect on everything as a whole.”
As important as that game was to Roberts, so was being moved from the team’s mid-week starter into the weekend rotation. That happened a couple of weeks later and the North Carolina game will mark his fifth start against an ACC opponent.
“It’s been more exciting because the four games I’ve pitched in have been deciding games in a series,” he said. “They’ve all been big games where we needed to win whereas when I was pitching mid-week that team just came in one time. In ACC games people are a little bit more pumped up because it goes toward the ACC and the regular record.”
Cavaliers coach Brian O’Connor said he tells every recruit that if they do their job in their initial role, they will be rewarded. In Roberts’ case, he went 4-0 as a freshman and 3-0 as a sophomore, pitching mostly in relief until he emerged as the mid-week starter last season. He continued that role this year, winning seven games before being moved to the weekend.
“We felt it was the right time to give him an opportunity to pitch on the weekend and see if he could continue to pitch at the same rate,” O’Connor said. “And he has.”
In fact, Roberts has gotten sharper each ACC outing. He won against Duke and got no decision against NC State, then pitched eight shutout innings to beat Boston College and seven innings with one run allowed in the win against nationally ranked Miami.
Roberts said he prepares the same for an ACC team as he did for a mid-week game.
“I still feel like if I make my pitches I’ll be successful and be able to get some people out,” he said.
Roberts has become a key component of Virginia’s rotation, which has helped carry the team to a 22-5 ACC record and a 45-6 overall mark. The Cavs are ranked No. 1 in the country in four polls.
Danny Hultzen (9-2, 1.42 ERA) usually pitches the first game of a series, followed by Tyler Wilson (6-0, 2.55) and then Roberts (10-0, 1.41). Cody Winiarski (6-2, 3.14) also has experience in the rotation, giving the Cavs the kind of starting pitching depth that will be critical in the upcoming ACC Championship and NCAA Tournament.
Branden Kline has done an excellent job of closing, topping the ACC with 15 saves.
The common thread that runs through the staff is the ability to throw strikes. Virginia pitchers have 513 strikeouts opposed to 114 walks. Put another way, that averages out to 10 strikeouts and two walks per nine innings.
“One of the main things is we’re a strike zone team,” Roberts said. “We’re not going to put people on base. People are going to have to earn everything that they get from us.”
Roberts has been the best on the staff in control, walking just eight batters in 76 1/3 innings. That rate of 0.94 walks per nine innings ranks first in the ACC and 16th in the NCAA.
That command was evident when Roberts pitched for a travel team called the Richmond Braves and caught the eye of Virginia recruiters against elite national competition. He attended the Maggie Walker Governor’s School in his native Richmond, where he earned enough college credits to accelerate his academic course at Virginia.
Playing a major sport in addition to getting in required academic work has tripped up athletes before. Roberts made sure it didn’t happen to him.
“It takes a lot of time management,” Roberts said. “You can’t just put things off, especially during the season when you’re gone half the weekends of the spring semester. You’ve just got to look ahead and find out when you’re going to do things, make sure you’ve got them done and you’re not waiting until the last second to finish something.”
He has signed up for graduate courses but has not decided if he will use his final year of eligibility.
“Even though I’m graduating I’m not sure I’ll be done with playing for the Cavaliers,” Roberts said.
That will likely depend on how high he goes in next month’s baseball draft. O’Connor said Roberts could be drafted because he throws “a fastball that you have to respect and he mixes his pitches. His command is what I think separates him.”
Whether he turns pro or not, Roberts said there’s a lot of baseball left to be played this season and that’s what he’s concentrating on.
“I’m trying not to look too far past what we’ve got going on here because I really do feel like we’ve got something special here at Virginia,” he said.” I think if we keep it all together and play as one team then we’ve got a shot at doing some special things.”
Roberts credits playing in the Cape Cod League last summer for his increased effectiveness this season.
“Coming back this year I got a lot stronger physically, my velocity has been up (to 92 miles per hour) and it’s made my off-speed pitches a little sharper than they were my freshman year or my sophomore year,” he said.
“Just playing with some of the best players in the country and bringing that experience back down here to Virginia with the feeling that I could compete at the highest level, it helps my confidence every time I go out there on the mound.”
That confidence culminated in the game against George Washington, only the second perfect game in ACC history and the eighth nine-inning perfect game in NCAA history.
“I felt like my slider and my fastball were both where I wanted them pretty much every time,” Robert said, “and I was able to get some weak contact that kept the ball in the infield for some easy outs. There’s no feeling like being in the seventh or eighth inning knowing that you have a perfect game going. Just the fact that I was able to finish it out and the team pouring onto the field, it’s something awesome that not a lot of people get to feel.
“It wasn’t just me, it’s something that the team could share. I didn’t go out there and strike out all 27. They made plays behind me in the field and I really thank all my teammates for that. Nobody got too caught up in it; we were loose the whole game and it was just really fun.”
The Cavs gave Roberts the traditional treatment when a game like that is unfolding – they didn’t talk to him or sit near him the last couple of innings. He said everything was so in sync that nobody needed to talk anyway.
“It was a dominating performance,” O’Connor said, “one of those days when it all came together for him and he had really good stuff. All of a sudden it got to the seventh inning and you knew that he first had a chance for a no-hitter. After the seventh inning, when he got through the first three batters in the lineup, you knew this really had a chance of happening.
“I think everybody was aware of what was going on and everybody kind of stayed away from him. I can tell you I didn’t say a word to him the entire game.”
Since then, Roberts has continued to go about his baseball business similar to the way he approached academics – attention to detail, don’t take anything for granted and focus on the immediate task at hand.
How far that will take him, and the rest of the Cavaliers, will be decided in the next few weeks.
“Every team’s goal since the beginning of the season has been to end up in Omaha on the final day with the (College World Series) trophy,” Roberts said. “But we’re not really focused on playing that game yet. We’re focused on the game we’ve got (today) with UNC.
“That keeps us grounded. We try not to look past anybody because baseball is a funny game and anything can happen. Like last year we were ranked No. 1 for awhile and we didn’t even make it to Omaha.
“We feel if we look past somebody or if we focus on something other than the game that we have next, something could happen. And we really wouldn’t want that.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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