Whitten finds success at back end of UVA bullpen

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 SPORTS) -- After Virginia rallied for three runs in the top of the ninth inning of the Cavaliers' series opener at Georgia Tech in mid-March, Brian O'Connor gave the ball to Kyle Whitten to close out the victory.

The sophomore right-hander has taken control of that closer role at the back end of the UVA bullpen ever since.

Whitten worked around a two-out walk to pick up his first college save in that 9-8 victory at Georgia Tech on March 15. He'll enter the Cavaliers' critical weekend series at home against Louisville on Friday with nine saves on the season -- a total good for third in the ACC, as of Wednesday.

"Since he's been in this pitching-at-the-end-of-the-game type role, he's really, really pitched very efficiently and very well for us," O'Connor said.

Whitten is a perfect 9-for-9 in save opportunities since taking over as the Cavaliers' closer a month into the season. He has a 2.70 ERA in 20 innings pitched over that stretch. Take away last Tuesday's save at VCU, in which Whitten gave up a two-run home run in 2/3 of an inning, and that ERA drops to 1.86 since becoming closer.

"The last three outs of the game are the most important outs to get. They're the toughest outs to get," O'Connor said. "And certainly having somebody there that is showing confidence that he can do the job at the end of the game has been important for us."

"You just really have to slow the game down. Not make the situation bigger than it is, go pitch-by-pitch, and take one out at a time, really," Whitten said. "If it's in that situation, or if it's earlier in the game, whatever they need me to do. I'm always ready to throw."

Whitten's emergence has also enabled the UVA coaching staff to expand the role of sophomore left-hander Andrew Abbott, who spent the first month of the season tethered to that closer role.

Abbott has been used in a variety of roles since mid-March, from starting a pair of games -- including a one-inning spot start in place of a scratched Mike Vasil against Miami last month, a day after pitching 2 1/3 innings out of the bullpen -- to setting up Whitten late in games. Abbott has gone at least three innings three times, including matching his career high by pitching four innings in a start against Liberty two weeks ago -- in a game that was closed out by Whitten.

Since the change in roles, UVA is 7-2 when both Abbott and Whitten pitch in the same game.

"Getting to throw more is definitely great," Abbott said. "Like I've said, you've covered it, but just helping the team however I can. If they need me to start then I'll start. If they need me to come in early, late. It doesn't matter. I'll do that. Just making sure that our team is successful in whatever way I can help it be."

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