Virginia’s Hultzen quietly confident

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Baseball became part of Danny’s identity, much like the calm his mother, Martha Martin, and Chris radiated in the stands during their sons’ games.

Joe discovered another path into baseball: the front office. An economics major at Kenyon, each project he completed connected to baseball. He wrote papers like “Rookies and the regression effect” and “Perfect games in MLB.” One professor threatened to flunk him if he turned in another baseball-related project. Instead, Joe did football.

Today, Joe interns in the Washington Nationals’ baseball operations department. He can’t participate in pre-draft meetings because of Danny. Someday, Joe wants to be a major league general manager. Maybe, he said in a voice equal parts joking and dreaming, Danny will be on his team.

Maintaining focus

The first time professional scouts pointed radar guns at Danny Hultzen during his senior year at St. Albans, he was intimidated. That lasted about a minute. Then they drifted into the background, leaving his parents with the realization the son they assumed would end up in graduate school could make a career of baseball.

Back then Hultzen was raw, more thrower than pitcher. Helped by a growth spurt, he added 8 or 10 mph to his fastball between his junior and senior years. With a fastball that hit 91 mph, secondary pitches weren’t important. He simply gunned the ball by hitters. And a hard-throwing left-hander with a fluid pitching motion that seemed effortless always attracts scouts.

But there was something more than the arm. Nothing fazed Hultzen. Walk someone? Give up a home run? Lose the lead? Didn’t matter. His face wouldn’t change. Frustration didn’t well up. Unflappable, everyone said. He never wanted emotions to get too high or too low. The middle was home. Still is today. That’s led to 148 strikeouts and only 17 walks over 103 1/3 innings this season at Virginia. Doesn’t matter if he’s touched for a few runs. He returns to his routine on the mound as if nothing happened. Calm and focus lurk in that routine.

“You can’t dwell on the mistakes that you’ve made,” Hultzen said. “When those things happen, the important thing was to move on from it and get back to what makes you you.”

What happens next

When Danny Hultzen was 7 years old, his father taught him chess. Almost immediately, Danny figured out a basic series of moves to win. Each game, he never deviated from those moves. Chris tried every variation of moves he could conjure up, but couldn’t beat his son.

That’s how Hultzen pitches.

Like Cliff Lee, the Philadelphia Phillies’ left-hander, Hultzen doesn’t try to throw the ball by hitters. Instead, he wants them to put the ball in play. Perfection isn’t his goal. There aren’t 100-mph fastballs or Wiffleball curves. Nothing tentative or shy, either. Just pitch after pitch in the strike zone.

The style evolved not as an attempt to emulate one pitcher, but a willingness to try anything and, if it doesn’t work, move on. When Hultzen finds something that works, he grabs onto it the way his fingers - the longest his father has ever seen - wrap almost all the way around a baseball.

That near-obsession to improve usually left Chris, Martha and Joe as the last people waiting in the parking lot after games at Virginia, as Danny squeezed in another workout. The advice Chris once gave him still echoes: Anything worth doing is worth doing well.

“A lot of players panic when things don’t go their way or they search for answers when things don’t go right,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “There’s never a time when Danny Hultzen looks at it and says it’s not his day. This kid has stuck with his plan all along. His confidence and his demeanor does not waver.”

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