By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the series opener Saturday, Nick Howard went 3 for 5, and Derek Fisher went 2 for 5 with a double and a triple at Davenport Field. A day later, Branden Cogswell went 2 for 4 with a double and a triple, and Howard impressed in a short stint on the mound.
In other games this season, Nate Irving, Mike Papi and Brandon Downes have made major contributions to UVa’s baseball team.
When his first-year class enrolled at the University last summer, Brian O’Connor, a coach not prone to hyperbole, said the group had a chance to be special. The freshmen have not disappointed.
“I’m especially pleased about our first-year position players,” O’Connor said on Easter Sunday after Virginia’s 4-1 win over Wake Forest at Davenport Field.
“A number of them have made contributions, from Fisher to Cogswell to Papi to Nate Irving. To do what Nate Irving is doing as a true freshman behind the plate, you just don’t see very often in this country at this level.
“Nick Howard’s obviously doing some things well on the mound. I’m glad that Brandon Downes is back and healthy. There’ll be a point that he’ll get his opportunity. I think it’s a deep, talented class from a position-player standpoint. They’re halfway through the season, and they’ve certainly had a lot of great experiences, and they should be carrying themselves with a lot of confidence right now.”
Irving is the No. 1 catcher for a team that has won 13 consecutive games at Davenport Field, where Virginia (21-10-1 overall, 8-6 ACC) and Wake (19-13, 5-9) conclude their series Monday at 7 p.m.
Fisher, who has started 26 games, is hitting .306 and leads the team with five home runs. With eight triples, he has tied UVa’s single-season record.
Papi, who has also started 26 games, is hitting .289, with eight doubles. Howard has appeared in 20 games and is hitting .381. Downes suffered a broken hand March 6, but he hit .429 before getting hurt. Cogswell is hitting .289, with three triples.
“A lot of guys have shown why they got recruited here, and then some,” Howard said. “We’re definitely excited about what our class can do.”
Cogswell, whom O’Connor recruited as a middle infielder, has played in only 18 games — not because he lacks talent, but because Virginia has such veterans as Keith Werman, Chris Taylor and Stephen Bruno in the lineup.
In a lot of other programs, Cogswell would “be a starting player as a freshman,” O’Connor said. “But that’s what happens at a program at this level. You come in as a freshman. You contribute when your number’s called upon, and you keep working hard and you wait your turn. We’ve worked hard to develop that kind of program here, and you’re able to ease guys into it a little bit and get ’em some experience. Hopefully the experience those young position players have had this year will make them pretty special players next season.”
Werman, usually UVa’s second baseman, started at catcher Sunday, and Cogswell seized the opportunity. His two-RBI triple in the third inning put the Wahoos ahead to stay, and he scored their final run in the fifth. Cogswell also distinguished himself in the field, helping Virginia turn inning-ending double plays in the fifth, sixth and seventh.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get [the freshmen] in there, because of the makeup of our lineup,” O’Connor said, “but he certainly sparked us today.”
Cogswell said: “You love playing. It’s been difficult. You’ve had to adjust, but you come to the park every day ready to play, and you’re ready whenever your number’s called. You gotta be ready to go.”
Before Sunday’s game, Cogswell said, Werman “came up to me and said, ‘Hey, go out there and have some fun. Nothing’s going to surprise you. Play your type of game.’ And that’s what happened.”
Cogswell has “a chance to be the shortstop of the future here, but out of necessity he’s played some second base this year when we’ve caught Werman, and it’s been a good role for him,” O’Connor said. “I think he’s versatile enough that he can play anywhere on the infield. I think he’s athletic enough to be able to handle that. I’m happy that he’s in our uniform. He’s a great player. He’s even a more wonderful kid. Great teammate, works very hard, and the game’s going to reward him for that.”
The ‘Hoos, who have won 16 consecutive ACC series at Davenport Field, used five pitchers Sunday. That one of them was Howard, a 6-3, 215-pound right-hander from Olney, Md., could be considered noteworthy.
It was Howard’s first appearance in a weekend series as a Cavalier. It won’t be his last.
“You can see by watching him pitch and seeing the velocity on the scoreboard that the kid’s got a lot of talent on the mound,” O’Connor said.
In October, Howard faced two batters in the final game of UVa’s intrasquad Orange and Blue World Series. That was about all the pitching he did in the fall.
“We wanted him just to be a position player and didn’t want to overload Nick Howard,” said O’Connor, a former Creighton pitcher. “But he’s starting to show on a consistent basis that he’s somebody that can be counted on more often. So now we’ve got him in the mix. This was his first time in an ACC game … and he’ll see more and more opportunities if he continues to pitch the way that he does. That kid throws 91 to 94 miles an hour, and he’s a strike thrower with a good slider. If I had that guy’s ability, I’d still be pitching.”
Howard has struck out 19 in his 14.2 innings this season. He’s 1-0 with a 1.23 earned-run average. He fanned the first batter he faced Sunday.
Of his first appearance in an ACC game, Howard said, “If I didn’t say it was different I’d be lying. There’s a bunch of people in the stands, the adrenaline is going, and I just wanted to go out there and get the first guy to take the momentum away from them.”
At St. John’s College High School, where another Cavalier, left-hander Scott Silverstein, also starred, Howard played shortstop when he wasn’t pitching. His role has been smaller at UVa, but Howard understands why.
“There’s guys like Stephen Bruno and Chris Taylor who have put in two more years than I have, and I know that,” Howard said. “And they’re a lot more experienced going into playing ACC ball. I definitely knew that coming in, that the older guys are going to get more opportunities, because they’ve been through everything that I haven’t.”
BRING THE HEAT: Throwing out the ceremonial first pitch Monday night will be Mike Scott, the All-American who led the UVa men’s basketball team in scoring and rebounding this season.
And if the 6-foot-8 Scott asks O’Connor for tips before taking the mound?
“My advice to Mike is going be to let it rip,” O’Connor said, “even if it goes to the backstop. Step up on that rubber, toe that rubber and just let rip and see what happens.”
“As tall as he is, he ought to be able to throw the ball with a pretty good downward plane. He better be careful, because he might have a job the back half of the spring if he throws it too well.”