Virginia’s Hultzen quietly confident

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The pitcher looked as if he wanted to disappear.

In the corner of the dugout, a television camera caught Danny Hultzen two weeks ago. The best left-hander in college baseball tucked his head against his shoulder, doing everything he could to hunker down and be small.

The left arm that zips fastballs at 94 mph seemed far away. So did the command of off-speed pitches, already regarded as major league average though he’s a junior at the University of Virginia. Same for his control, so uncanny he once threw only eight balls over five innings in one high school game for St. Albans School and seared the performance into his coach’s mind.

Chris Hultzen watched the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament from Bethesda and wondered if his son wanted to be invisible. Danny’s older brother, Joe, did the same thing during his playing days to eliminate distractions. The gesture was as familiar to the father as the pitching motion Danny repeats so exactly it’s like watching the rerun of a movie.

Attention makes him squirm. Been that way since his first days playing youth baseball for the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Hurricanes. Monday, the Bethesda native will be the among the top five picks of the Major League Baseball draft, perhaps as high as first overall to the Pittsburgh Pirates. A $13 million contract could follow, Baseball America reported.

But Hultzen acts like someone lucky to have a spot on the team, the first guy to lug bags of bats or pull out the tarp. The two-time ACC pitcher of the year would love to be the last player on the roster. Anonymous.

He still owns T-shirts from junior high. His toes stick out of his shoes. He doesn’t drive a flashy car. He’s on track to graduate with a degree in history. He flushes when a teammate’s mother pecks his cheek. He’s embarrassed by the swell of pre-draft attention, a friend said.

Then Hultzen steps on the field and everything changes.

“He’s the greatest combination of confidence and humility I’ve ever seen in a person,” said David Baad, who coached Hultzen for three years at St. Albans. “When it’s time for the game to start, he’s an absolute bulldog. He feels like he can beat anybody.”

Brothers dream

Years ago, Joe Hultzen let go of his dream to be drafted. Tommy John surgery before his junior year at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, ended it. Once a starter, the surgery transformed him into a reliever beholden to a pitch count with an arm that wasn’t the same.

“After the surgery,” the 24-year-old said, “no one’s going to want to look at someone like me.”

But Danny Hultzen always looked at his brother. When 7-year-old Joe started baseball, Danny watched each game from beyond the outfielders and rolled a ball back and forth with his father.

“My dad,” Joe said, “blames the whole thing on me.”

Chris Hultzen, a neonatologist at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, never played baseball. The sport never occupied his dreams. Still doesn’t. Little Danny’s ability to throw quickly outpaced his father’s. Joe and Danny picked out his first glove. The family’s dog, Rex, promptly destroyed it.

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.”

Chris Hultzen thinks of his son as an old soul, wise beyond his 21 years. If you passed him in the street, Joe Hultzen insists, you wouldn’t know he’s anyone special.

Danny Hultzen doesn’t fixate on one pitch, one inning or one game. Even one draft.

“The important thing,” Hultzen said, “is what happens next.”

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