With 18 saves in 32 appearances and a 1.88 ERA, Virginia’s Branden Kline was one of the best closers in the country in 2011.
As an experienced pitcher on a young squad looking to refashion its pitching staff, the versatile right-hander this year is trading saves for starts.
The Cavaliers looked to rebuild their rotation after losing four key pitchers who combined to throw 70 percent of their total innings last year. All-Americans Danny Hultzen (12-3, 1.37 ERA, 165 strikeouts) and Will Roberts (11-2, 1.79) were taken in the first round of the MLB draft by the Seattle Mariners and in the fifth round by the Cleveland Indians, respectively. In addition, seniors Tyler Wilson (10-0, 2.24) and Cody Winiarski (6-4, 2.92) graduated and were drafted by the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox.
The departures meant Virginia was without all of its weekend starters and its prime midweek starter. Thus, Kline’s move to the rotation.
“[Kline] is the most veteran, most experienced, successful pitcher that we have returning from last year’s club,” coach Brian O’Connor said. “This happens to be the year that we have a lot of new players that are not only first-years, but also players that have been in the program but are playing new roles.”
With his new role in mind, Kline approached this season - which begins Friday against Boston College in Conway, S.C. - in the same manner he did the previous year. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound junior played his second summer with the Collegiate USA baseball team before returning to Virginia for weight training.
“The only difference between the last two years was probably that I threw a lot more pitches this year than I did last year,” Kline said.
Starting games won’t be an entirely new experience for Kline. As a freshman, he bounced between a reliever’s role and a starter’s role that included making two starts in the NCAA tournament. With that experience under his belt, O’Connor thought it best for Kline to anchor the Cavalier pitching staff.
“Last year, I was simply going in for one inning, or a little longer than that,” Kline said. “This year, I want to go out and treat it as if every inning is the ninth inning where I’m trying to keep my team in the ballgame.”
While the Cavaliers are looking to mount another run to the College World Series, Kline has the opportunity to take control of that goal.
“Baseball is really the only sport where the defense has control of the ball,” Kline said. “You can kind of control how the game is going to go.”
With confidence and experience, the team-oriented Kline revels in the opportunity to have the game in his hand - and not just in the late innings.
“I love being a pitcher,” he said. “You’re kind of in control of everything.”
Other schools of note
c Virginia Tech (30-25 last year) - Nine starters return for the Hokies, including junior Andrew Rash, who led the team in batting (.335), home runs (18) and slugging percentage (.707).
c Georgetown (23-33) - Coming off of a 5-21 record in Big East play last season, the Hoyas are predicted to finish at the bottom of their conference once again. Georgetown returns five position starters and is going to have to improve on its collective .273 batting average in order to contend with its Big East competitors.
c Navy (33-25-1) - Having claimed their first conference tournament championship last season since 2002, Navy’s young squad is out to defend the Patriot League title.
c George Washington (19-36) - The Colonials are without standout Brendon Kelliher, who led the team in 13 categories including batting average (.358), RBI (41), and runs scored (40). But eight GW starters return after an 11th-place finish in A-10 play last season.
c George Mason (21-32-1) - The Patriots ended the 2011 season in last place in the CAA. With only four freshmen on the roster and upperclassmen making up the majority of the team, Mason should hope the players’ experience will serve to improve on last season’s record.