By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In his first eight seasons as baseball coach at the University of Virginia — by far the most successful stretch in the program’s long history — Brian O’Connor often used first-year players in important roles. Not until this season, however, has O’Connor entrusted the job of No. 1 catcher to a freshman.
The young man is Nate Irving, and he’s handled the responsibility with aplomb.
Irving, a graduate of Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, N.Y., has appeared in six of the Cavaliers’ seven games, with five starts. (Senior Keith Werman has been moving from second base to catcher on Saturdays when left-hander Scott Silverstein starts on the mound.)
On a team that improved to 5-1-1 over the weekend with a three-game sweep of Monmouth at Davenport Field, the 6-0, 220-pound Irving is hitting .357, with 7 RBI. Only two Cavaliers — senior Jared King (11) and junior Chris Taylor (9) — have driven in more runs than Irving.
“Nate’s fun to watch,” O’Connor said last week after UVa rallied to beat William and Mary in 11 innings. “He plays the game with a lot of energy. You gotta enjoy watching his spirit back there behind the plate.
“It’s a lot of pressure for the kid, but he’s a bright, intelligent kid, and I believe that he can handle it. He played at a very high level of travel baseball in high school, and I think he’s handling being our starting catcher very well.”
Irving, who’s from Yonkers, N.Y., said he grew up playing in youth leagues in the Bronx, at 233rd and Broadway, with and against boys with roots in the baseball-mad Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
“I always remind myself to remember where I’ve come from and to always work my butt off,” Irving said.
At Riverdale Country School, Irving was called up to the varsity midway through the 2007 season. He was an eighth-grader then. By the time he graduated, Irving had been named to the all-conference first team five times and had established himself as one of New York City’s elite players.
In 2011, when the Wahoos advanced to the College World Series for the second time in three seasons, their No. 1 catcher was John Hicks, a junior. His backup was Kenny Swab, a senior. After Seattle selected Hicks in the fourth round of last year’s draft, the likelihood that he would leave UVa early increased significantly, and that meant O’Connor would probably need a new catcher.
As expected, Hicks signed with the Mariners. In New York, Irving realized he might have a chance to play a major role for the Cavaliers early in his college career. But that wasn’t his main focus when he arrived at the University in August.
“I’m thinking, I’m gonna go in and work my butt off and see what happens,” recalled Irving, who picked UVa over Vanderbilt, Louisville, Dartmouth and Wake Forest. “Obviously in my recruitment process, one of the reasons why I chose to come here was because I knew of the quality of this program, and I knew that I’d have the opportunity to grow as a player.
“And that’s really what I came here to do. I came here to grow as a person and as a player. Being able to grow in that fashion on the field and being able to contribute to a team like this is phenomenal.”
Irving isn’t O’Connor’s only option at catcher. In addition to Werman, freshman Brandon Downes and junior Chace Mitchell (a junior-college transfer) can play the position. But Irving has emerged as a clear-cut starter for Virginia, which hosts Liberty (8-1) at 3 p.m. Tuesday at Davenport Field.
That’s not to say, of course, that Irving has been perfect. He had two throwing errors against William and Mary, and he’s given up three passed balls. Of the seven runners who have tried to steal on Irving, four have succeeded.
“But he’s just going to have to learn,” O’Connor said, “and the only way you learn is by playing games and being in those experiences.”
Irving said: “All the coaches always preach that as much as you put in, you’ll be able to take out when it counts. Every day is a learning experience, and I’m so lucky to have guys like Werm, like Jared King, like Reed [Gragnani], like [Stephen] Bruno, there to soak in information from. Same with the coaches.”
One of Irving’s errors against W&M came on a throw that sailed over Werman’s head at second base.
“Every single pitch, every single at-bat, every single situation is a learning experience for me,” Irving said. “I think sometimes my instincts can take over, and sometimes maybe that’s where I’m still learning. On that ball that I blocked and then threw to second base and then threw over Werm, that’s a ball where I need to know that if the guy’s not off first base that far, I can take my time with that throw, not having to rush it.
“So I’m still learning. I’m going to learn from right now until the day I leave this program. It’s always going to be a learning process, and I’m so thankful that the coaches have been very encouraging in that.”
UVa opened the season Feb. 17 with a 5-3 loss to Boston College at a tournament in Conway, S.C. Irving won’t soon forget his college debut.
The ‘Hoos led 3-0 after three innings. In the top of fourth, though, BC rallied for four runs off UVa starter Branden Kline, all unearned. The first came with two outs, after a third strike got past Irving. The next batter belted a three-run homer to put BC ahead to stay in a game that doesn’t count in the ACC standings.
“I felt like I kind of let my team down a little bit in the fourth inning,” said Irving, but he didn’t lose his sense of perspective.
“Things like that are going to happen,” he said. “That’s part of growing up. That’s part of being 19 and being in a college program. But for me, I really wanted to make sure that I came back the next day against Coastal Carolina and showed the team that they could rely on me even when things weren’t going well.”
Against Coastal, Irving threw out a runner trying to steal second in the first inning. The Cavaliers went on to win 9-3.
“For me that was a big play, simply because I wanted to make sure I let the whole team know they could rely on me and I had their trust,” Irving said.