MLB Draft: Virginia's Hultzen getting attention as possible top pick


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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- There is a lake, Danny Hultzen said, about 30 minutes south of here, in a town called Scottsville. Sometimes, when the left-handed University of Virginia pitcher is not slicing his way through Atlantic Coast Conference opponents, he and his teammates will make the drive down Route 20 and go fishing. They do not catch much, he said -- the biggest haul so far was a baby smallmouth bass about 8 inches long.

"If you catch a fish, that's awesome," he said. "But it's not about catching the fish."

That's how Hultzen, a junior who has moved up the ranks of players in contention for the Pirates' No. 1 overall pick in the June draft, views his baseball future as well. If he gets drafted high, that's awesome. But it's not about getting drafted high.

"My focus is this team," Hultzen said of the No. 1-ranked Cavaliers. "I'm not going to put my needs or anything like that ahead of this team. There will be a time to think about that later, but that time isn't right now."

In less than a month, Hultzen, a 21-year-old from Bethesda, Md., will be drafted, likely in the top five, possibly by the Pirates, who are also considering Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon and UCLA pitcher Gerrit Cole as the first pick. General manager Neal Huntington recently attended one of Hultzen's starts. Hultzen is considered a safe pick and one of the most-polished players available, someone who could move quickly through a team's minor-league system.

"No disrespect to anybody else, this guy is hands down the best I've ever been around," said Cavaliers coach Brian O'Connor, who worked with former Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies closer Brad Lidge when Lidge and O'Connor were both at Notre Dame.

ESPN analyst Keith Law's mock draft, released Wednesday, had the Pirates taking Hultzen with the first pick, and Baseball America ranked him the best left-handed pitcher available.

"I don't really like to get that stuff in my head," said Hultzen, who was drafted in the 10th round in 2008 out of St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., by the Arizona Diamondbacks but went to college instead. "It's definitely an honor to be considered and be written about like that, but I'm just trying to keep my focus on this team and not be distracted by all that stuff."

Hultzen's command has led him to a 9-2 record, 1.42 ERA and 9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio entering the season's final weekend. He has been doing this for three years at Virginia, but 2011 represents significant improvement.

"There's no question he has taken it to a completely different level," O'Connor said.

"All his pitches that he throws are better, they're sharper, they're crisper, they're more consistent.

"There's been some outings he's had this year where visiting coaches have said, 'That's the most dominating outing I've ever seen"

That domination starts with Hultzen's command. Cavaliers assistant coach Karl Kuhn preaches a team-wide pitch-to-contact approach -- the starting rotation's strikeout-to-walk ratio is nearly 6-to-1 -- but Hultzen said watching players take batting practice reinforced the concept.

"If the ball's coming 50 miles an hour, and they know it's coming, a lot of their hits, even though they're hit hard, they're outs," Hultzen said.

"They're just long fly balls or ground balls. It kind of shows you that you just attack the strike zone."

Hultzen's choice is the fastball, which can reach 95 mph but usually hovers in the low 90s.

"When he is controlling his fastball and moving it around, it's pretty much unhittable," John Hicks, the Cavaliers' starting catcher, said.

Hultzen also throws a good changeup, and O'Connor said he started throwing a cut fastball that sits in the mid-80s this season. He throws a slider as well, mostly against left-handed batters.

Hultzen was the rare pitcher who had command before he had velocity. In high school, O'Connor said, Hultzen had a mid-80s fastball but could put it wherever he wanted.

As he grew and added muscle, the velocity increased, but his repeatable delivery and consistent mechanics allowed him to retain his control.

"There would be times over the first couple years where he would lose it for a bit, maybe a batter or two," O'Connor said. "You don't see that this year."

Hultzen's bat provides such a threat -- he was hitting .337 entering the weekend -- that he used to play first base on days he did not start, but now O'Connor uses him as a designated hitter.

It has helped Hultzen as a pitcher.

"When you're on that pitcher's mound, you know how hard it is to be in that batter's box and vice versa," O'Connor said.

Hultzen was 9-1 with an ACC-leading 2.17 ERA in 2009. He was named Virginia's first ACC freshman of the year and his 107 strikeouts led all ACC freshmen.

In 2010, Hultzen was 11-1 and struck out a conference-leading 123 batters while walking 24 on his way to becoming the ACC pitcher of the year.

In the NCAA tournament, he allowed two earned runs in eight innings to earn the victory against Oklahoma in the Super Regional after beating Mississippi in the Regional round. This was nothing new -- he went 1-0 with a 2.05 ERA in four NCAA tournament starts as a freshman.

"He's not fazed by anything, really," O'Connor said. "This kid was the No. 1 Friday night star right away as a true freshman."

His performance this season -- two home runs allowed, a .191 opponent's batting average, 13 walks in 822/3 innings entering the weekend -- resulted partially from improved conditioning and strength. For the past three summers, Hultzen worked out in Charlottesville, turning down the chance to play for Team USA to do so. He estimated he put on 25 to 30 pounds, which allows him not only to maintain his mechanics longer into games but stay healthy and strong late into the season.

Such as now, when the Cavaliers prepare to enter the conference tournament that begins Wednesday. Soon, Hultzen will end a college career he began envisioning years ago, when he and Cavaliers pitcher Scott Silverstein, who also played on Hultzen's youth travel team, visited Virginia for a tournament.

"It was just always a dream of mine to come here," he said. "We were just like, 'Wow this would be a really cool place to go.' "

Hultzen started pitching in Little League on the first day of the first season the players replaced the pitching machine. He soon found he had talent.

"I do remember getting all the catcher's gear and putting it on," Danny's father, Chris, said.

"I've never played baseball in my life. I put all the paraphernalia on. We did that probably three or four times. I said, 'Daniel, I can't do this. You are too good.' "

Danny Hultzen continues to improve, and that is his primary focus. O'Connor said Hultzen will arrive at 8 a.m. the day after a start to hit the weight room, then take two rounds of batting practice and field ground balls at first before playing in a game that day.

"And you never had to tell the kid to do it," he said. "You try to tell this guy, 'Hey, listen, take it easy' except there's no 'take it easy' with him."

Years after playing in that youth tournament, Hultzen sat in the entryway of Davenport Field, the Cavaliers' home stadium, preparing to leave for the final regular-season series against North Carolina.

His likeness graced the walls, here in an ACC championship picture, there in a dog pile after a win, over here in a team photo from the NCAA tournament.

In front of him were chairs, a podium and a Cavaliers backdrop where the team now conducts postgame interviews.

They used to meet the media on the third floor, though. Near the end of Hultzen's freshman season, O'Connor asked Hultzen if he wanted to ride the elevator. He declined -- "No, coach, I don't take the elevator" -- and ran up three flights of stairs like he usually did.

"The guy does things the right way and doesn't take any shortcuts," O'Connor said. "That really stood out to me about what this kid's made of."

If Hultzen makes it upstairs fast, that's awesome. But to Hultzen, it's not about making it upstairs fast, or getting drafted high, or catching the fish.

It's about the path he takes to get there.


Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com .


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