By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Baseball lovers across the country followed ESPN’s coverage of the College World Series in June. Among the most interested observers was a 6-3, 215-pound infielder from Olney, Md.
In November 2010, as a senior at St. John’s College High School in D.C., Nick Howard had signed a letter of intent with UVa. Seven months later, Howard watched the Cavaliers advance to the CWS semifinals and dreamed of the day he would wear their uniform.
“I just couldn’t wait to get here,” Howard recalled Tuesday night at Davenport Field. “They enjoyed a lot of success, and that’s what we’re planning on doing this year, and we’re working hard.
“It’s a great group of guys. The atmosphere’s great, the coaches are great. To be honest, it’s a little overwhelming, but once you get into the game, it’s just a baseball game.”
The ninth annual Orange and Blue World Series began this week, and the fans who showed up for Game 1 got a look at the heralded recruiting class that intends to keep ninth-year coach Brian O’Connor‘s program among the nation’s elite.
From a team that last spring won a school-record 56 games, captured the ACC title and advanced to Omaha for the second time in three seasons, such standouts as Danny Hultzen, John Hicks, Steven Proscia, John Barr, Will Roberts, Tyler Wilson and David Coleman are gone.
Filling those slots on UVa’s roster are such newcomers as Howard, Derek Fisher, Branden Cogswell, Brandon Downes, Mike Papi, Nate Irving, Chace Mitchell and Kenny Towns.
“That’s part of how it works every year,” senior second baseman Keith Werman said. “You get new guys, and certain guys gotta move on. They move on to do their thing. It’s nice to have new faces out there.”
The newcomers “have a lot of good talent,” said Werman, who went 2 for 4 on Tuesday night. “They know the game pretty well, but they’re still learning. Even I’m still learning, in certain situations. But every day they’re getting better, so that’s always a good sign to see.”
In the OBWS opener, which Blue won 8-7 in 10 innings, Howard, Papi, Cogswell and Towns had two hits apiece. Fisher, whom many consider the jewel of the first-year class, was hitless, but he was intentionally walked twice and scored two runs.
The 6-3, 210-pound Fisher also had an impressive at-bat in the second inning, crushing a pitch from Orange starter Whit Mayberry. The ball traveled about 370 feet before center-fielder Mitchell Shifflett caught it on the warning track.
“When he gets a hold of it, he’s a big, strong, powerful kid,” O’Connor said of Fisher. “His game will continue to advance, but he’s obviously an exciting player, and I think many of [the newcomers] are going to make significant contributions right away.
“Mike Papi swung the bat very well tonight, Nick Howard did, and Branden Cogswell did. Brandon Downes has done some very good things, and the two new catchers” — Irving and Mitchell, a junior-college transfer — “at times this fall have done some really good things too. But we need to continue to learn the game of baseball and take care of the fundamentals.”
The teams combined for five errors Tuesday night, with the Orange club responsible for four of them. There were three passed balls and two wild pitches, and the nine pitchers combined for 11 walks. Mayberry, Branden Kline and Aaron Stull each hit a batter with a pitch.
“We got out of Game 1 what we wanted out of it,” O’Connor said, “and that is for the two teams to be very, very competitive with each other and have it mean a lot to them.
“And so that part of it is very, very beneficial. But we just gave away too many opportunities from the pitching standpoint and the defensive standpoint, and we can’t do that. And that’s what we need to learn and grow from in this series.
“This is a great learning lesson for us. We gotta clean it up a little bit. We can’t have wild pitches and passed balls and some of the walks that we had if we’re going to be successful.”
Werman said: “We gotta stress the fundamentals. They’ll come. As long as we keep focusing on those and doing what we need to, we’ll be in good shape.”
The Orange and Blue World Series consists of five games this year, each with a 6 p.m. starting time. Game 2 is Monday, Game 3 is Oct. 12, Game 4 is Oct. 14 and Game 5 is Oct. 16. Admission is free for each game.
Before Game 4, Virginia’s 2011 team will be honored in a ceremony at Davenport. Team members will receive their ACC championship and College World Series rings that night.
Many of the stars of that team are now pursuing pro careers. It may be strange for the coaches not to see such mainstays as Hultzen and Hicks and Proscia every day at Davenport, “but when players come into your program and they develop and they get better, you want them to move on and have the next opportunity,” said O’Connor, whose record in eight seasons at Virginia is 372-130-1, with eight NCAA tournament appearances.
At the end of nine innings Tuesday night, the teams were tied 5-5. In the top of the 10th, Towns scored from third on a passed ball. Later that inning, Howard drilled a two-run single off Orange reliever Artie Lewicki, a sophomore right-hander, to make it 8-5.
In the bottom of the 10th, Orange rallied for two runs off senior right-hander Justin Thompson and had Shifflett, the team’s fastest player, on second with two outs. The comeback died there. Towns, playing first base, dove to his left to stop a grounder from Cogswell, then flipped to Thompson for the final out.
Senior right-hander Shane Halley, who began the game in right field, pitched three innings of relief and earned the victory. Halley also went 2 for 4 with an RBI.
The Blue team’s starter was Kline, a junior right-hander. Kline, who started eight games in 2010, was the Cavaliers’ closer last season. He allowed four hits and three runs Tuesday, with one strikeout and one walk.
“We’re going to continue to work with him on it and evaluate it,” O’Connor said. “The most he’s gone this fall before tonight has been three innings. He went five tonight. Obviously he’s got talent.”