May 11, 2013

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — With one out in the bottom of the ninth inning Friday night, a runner on first and his team trailing 5-4, UVa sophomore Nick Howard was stepping into the batter’s box when lightning was spotted near Davenport Field.

Officials immediately halted the game. The stadium was cleared of fans, and the waiting game began as sheets of rain pelted Davenport.

“We had all the momentum in the world, and I was like, `What’s going to happen when we come back?’ ” said sophomore center-fielder Brandon Downes, who had tripled with one out in the ninth and then scored on a wild pitch to make it a one-run game.

“I just told the team to stay ready to go,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “We would do everything we could to try to finish the ball game tonight. Fortunately we found a break in the weather and got back out there.”

Fifty-six minutes after the delay began, Howard, who was 0 for 3, finally got to face Duke closer Andrew Istler. From the crowd of 3,669, only a smattering of fans had returned to Davenport.

“That’s definitely the longest amount of time that I’ve had to wait for an at-bat,” Howard said later.

Howard fell behind 0-2 before evening the count. Then he lashed a single into left-center field, moving freshman John LaPrise to second. LaPrise was running for sophomore Derek Fisher, who in the final at-bat before the weather delay had singled to left.

Up came senior Reed Gragnani, who hammered the ball into left-center, scoring LaPrise and moving Howard to third. Duke intentionally walked sophomore Kenny Towns to load the bases, and sophomore Nate Irving took it from there.

In the second and in the eighth, Irving had smashed line drives directly at Duke fielders for outs. He made good contact again, and this time the ball found the hole on the right side of the infield, lifting the seventh-ranked Cavaliers (40-8 overall, 18-7 ACC) to a 6-5 victory the fans who stuck it out won’t soon forget.

It was the Cavaliers’ 17th comeback win of the season — and the third in which they rallied in the ninth inning — but there was nothing typical about this one.

“I haven’t been a part of very many of those,” O’Connor said, “where you’re down in the ball game and you come out of a rain delay and get three straight hits to win the game.”

Irving, a two-year starter at catcher, entered the game hitting .248 and was 0 for 3 when he stepped to the plate in the ninth.

“I tried not to think about it, to be honest,” Irving said. “That’s kind of been the story of my last three or four weeks, I feel like. There have been some points where I tried to do a little bit too much. I’ve really gotten myself in some trouble.

“I hit two balls hard [earlier in the game]. All I can really do is just try to do it again and replicate it, not try to do too much. Just try to see it and put a good swing on it.”

This marks the eighth time in O’Connor’s 10 seasons that the Wahoos have reached the 40-win mark. Victory No. 40 did not come easily for a team coming off a nine-day break for final exams.

For eight innings, Virginia struggled against Duke starter Trent Swart, a left-hander who during one stretch retired 12 straight batters.

“He did a tremendous job and kept us off balance,” O’Connor said. “But obviously a different look [in the ninth turned out] to be beneficial for us.”

The `Hoos scored two runs in the first inning, on freshman Joe McCarthy’s two-RBI single, but Duke pulled even in the third, when Andy Perez homered off UVa starter Brandon Waddell. The freshman left-hander gave up another two-run blast in the fourth, and the Blue Devils (25-24, 9-16) took a 5-3 lead into the ninth.

Through eight innings, Virginia had only five hits and had committed two errors. The `Hoos looked very much like a team that hadn’t played in more than a week.

Ragged play “has kind of been a consistent theme for us coming out of finals,” O’Connor said. “but for the most part we’ve found a way to win in that ball game, like we did tonight. It certainly wasn’t pretty. We didn’t handle the ball on the infield like we needed to. To Duke’s credit, they took advantage of some pitches that we made and hit a couple of home runs, but hopefully we’re through that first game, and we can be sharper and crisper tomorrow.”

Weather permitting, Game 2 of the series will begin at 4 p.m. Saturday. The series finale is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday.

The series opener was the Cavaliers’ first game this season without sophomore Brandon Cogswell, their starting shortstop. Cogswell, who’s second on the team in hitting with a .346 average, broke a bone in the middle finger of his throwing hand in practice May 4, an injury that required surgery.

Doctors will re-evaluate Cogswell before the start of the ACC tournament, May 22-26 in Durham, N.C. In Cogswell’s absence, Howard will play shortstop — his position in the field at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C. — and Towns will take Howard’s customary spot at third base.

Howard has worked at shortstop “at times in practice and in scrimmages, so it’s not something that’s brand-new to him,” O’Connor said.

The 6-3, 215-pound Howard has been the Cavaliers’ Sunday starter, and when he’s on the mound LaPrise will play shortstop, O’Connor said.

Clearly, there is little Howard cannot do on the baseball field. He came into the series opener hitting .331, and the sight of Howard at the plate in the ninth inspired confidence in his teammates.

“He’s the type of guy that it doesn’t matter what kind of situation it is, whether it’s high pressure or low pressure,” Irving said.

“Whatever happens, he’s just going to be consistent, and he’s not going to let the situation affect how he goes about his business. He was the perfect person to have that at-bat, and it showed.”

Print Friendly Version