- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2007

CHARLOTTESVILLE — It is a day off — sort of — for Sean Doolittle.

While his fellow Virginia starters are getting treatment, resting or strategizing for their next outing, Doolittle is spending the days he doesn’t pitch digging balls out of the dirt, backhanding sharp grounders and stroking base hits from the heart of the batting order.

The left-hander is the Cavaliers’ everyday first baseman — every day, that is, except when he takes the mound as one of the league’s top hurlers.

“Sean is one of those rare players in college baseball,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “The guy is worth two scholarships. For a guy to be able to do what he does — pitch for you on the weekend effectively like he does and hit in the middle of your lineup and play first base — is so rare and so special in this age. It’s like recruiting two great players.”

With one more RBI, Doolittle will become Virginia’s all-time leader. He could also leave Charlottesville as the program’s leader in wins.

Doolittle’s do-it-all ability earned him ACC player of the year honors last season. He earned a spot on the U.S. national team the past two summers, a feat former teammate and Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman also accomplished.

The junior earned All-ACC honors again this season and is hitting .318 with a team-high 52 RBI while batting third in the lineup regardless of his position. When he is not in his corner office, the lanky lefty displays a quiet motion while showcasing a 90 mph fastball, made that much more effective with a recently developed change-up. He has a 7-3 record with a 2.57 ERA.

The multidimensional star — who hit cleanup behind Zimmerman as a freshman — is a prime reason Virginia was ranked as high as third this season and earned a No. 1 seed and the right to play host to an NCAA tournament regional this weekend.

The Cavaliers, eyeing their first trip to the College World Series, will play host to Lafayette in the first game of the double-elimination tournament this afternoon at Davenport Field. Virginia has never won a regional despite playing host to two, including last season.

“We’re trying to change that,” said Doolittle, whose uncle Jeff Urban was an infielder on the 1983 James Madison team, the only Virginia program to make the CWS.

Doolittle plans to make that stop in Omaha, Neb., before launching his professional career later this month. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Doolittle might be taken in the first two rounds of the Major League Baseball draft next week.

At that level, though, Doolittle’s dual role — something he has done since little league — likely will end. It is a message the New Jersey high school player of the year has heard before. Several colleges recruiting him — including Clemson, North Carolina and Florida — wanted him only as a pitcher. Even Rutgers, which will play in Virginia’s regional against Oregon State tonight, told him to put his bats back on the rack — permanently.

He enters the postseason with 166 RBI and 21 wins in his three seasons.

“They said I could only pitch for them,” says Doolittle, who hit .324 last season with 57 RBI while going 11-2 with a 2.38 ERA. “They said they never had anybody do it. I still felt I could do it at this level. I couldn’t see myself pitching one game a week and then sitting for six days and not having an impact on the game.”

Doolittle pitched in 22 games, starting one, in his first season and batted behind Zimmerman while playing first base. He hit .313 and had 57 RBI — second on the team in both categories behind Zimmerman — while posting a team-best 11 home runs in the Cavaliers’ cavernous park.

“He could hit, he could play defense and he could pitch. He could do everything,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t know what they will draft him as, but it will be interesting to see what happens, whether he plays every day or pitches.”

Doolittle closely observed Zimmerman in their season together and learned how to approach the game.

“It wasn’t so much how to do stuff or skill-related; it was more the mental side of the game and how to approach it, how to handle adversity if you are having a bad day and how to be able to throw out a bad at-bat and come back and be ready for the next one,” Doolittle said. “He just helped me grow a lot in that aspect as a player. He has such an even keel.”

While Doolittle was recruited mainly as a pitcher in college, ironically his pro future appears to be as a hitter and fielder. He showed he can hit with a wood bat (college uses aluminum) while playing in the Cape Cod League and on the national team.

“It has evolved to where he has become a better hitter, and I think that is what professional scouts see,” said O’Connor, who had another two-way player, Joe Koshansky, win ACC player of the year in 2004. “I think what he is going to end up doing is hitting. It’s also nice to know you have a guy that is left-handed and throws 90 mph if the hitting doesn’t work out.”

Baseball America lists Doolittle as the 91st-best amateur prospect, a drop from the preseason. He is viewed as a strong fielder and excellent contact hitter, but the biggest question is his power — something major league teams generally look for in corner infielders.

Doolittle leads Virginia with seven home runs, but his dual role likely hurt his slugging and, as a result, his draft status. He splits practice time between the two positions, unable to spend all his time perfecting one area of his game.

“The demands on him are greater than on any other player,” O’Connor said. “That’s a tough balance. In his defense, he has lifted as a pitcher, which is high-rep and things like that. When he gets into pro ball, he can lift as a position player. Maybe his power and things like that will come because he will get physically stronger. His frame is big to where he can add some bulk to it.”

Doolittle seems at ease with his decision to play both positions in college, even if it could cost him a sizable signing bonus. He is enjoying his time at Virginia, though he admits he might have been negatively affected by extra attention. As scouts continue to make the trip along U.S. Route 29, Doolittle has stopped reading draft predictions about where his future will begin — even if it no longer is at two positions.

“That was always kind of my thing; I wanted to do it as long as I possibly could and almost have somebody else make that decision,” Doolittle said. “I kind of feel like I might be taking the easy way out by saying that, but I really don’t have a preference. I have never thought of myself as a pitcher who could hit or a hitter that could pitch. I just saw myself as someone who could do both. It is kind of exciting to think about what I could do with one or the other if I didn’t have to worry about doing both.”

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