By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On a sun-splashed afternoon, the UVa baseball team ran through a 90-minute practice Friday at Davenport Field, where the stands were virtually empty.
Those seats will be filled Saturday when the Cavaliers resume a postseason journey that began last month at the ACC tournament and continued last weekend with their romp through the NCAA’s Charlottesville Regional.
At noon, in the opening game of a best-of-three series, Virginia (47-13) hosts Maryland (39-21) in the first NCAA super regional matching ACC teams. The super regional sold out Monday, but ESPN2 will televise every game from Davenport Field.
The Cavaliers, who advanced to the College World Series in 2009 and ’11, are in an NCAA super regional for the fifth time in six seasons.
For the Terrapins, who will join the Big Ten this summer, this is uncharted territory. But if the Wahoos have an edge in experience, they know not to take the Terps lightly. In the teams’ only meeting this season, May 22 at the ACC tournament, Maryland hit four home runs and edged UVa 7-6 in Greensboro, N.C.
Before last weekend, the Terps had not appeared in the NCAA tournament since 1971. They had not won an NCAA tourney game since 1970. In the Columbia (S.C.) Regional, however, Maryland went 3-0, beating South Carolina twice, to advance to the tournament’s round of 16.
Since losing 6-3 to JMU on April 29, the Terps have won 14 of 16 games.
“Certainly we have a lot of respect for them,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said Friday. “They played with a lot of momentum that day [in Greensboro]. They’re playing with a lot of momentum right now.
“They’ve got very good players. They seem like they’ve got an edge to them, and they’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
The `Hoos, seeded No. 3 overall in the NCAA tournament, whose top two seeds fell last weekend, are a confident group too, never more than when sophomore left-hander Nathan Kirby is on the mound.
Kirby, who, as expected, will start Saturday, was named to the Louisville Slugger All-America first team last week. He’s 9-1 this season, with a 1.36 earned-run average.
“Most of the time when Kirby’s out there, the bullpen’s breathing pretty easy, because we know he’s going to go out there and cruise through some innings,” UVa closer Nick Howard said.
Maryland will counter with senior right-hander Jake Stinnett (7-6, 2.65), who gave up 10 hits — four to Howard — in eight innings against UVa in Greensboro. Virginia’s starter that day was senior right-hander Artie Lewicki.
“I think we’re just fortunate that we get to see him twice,” junior first baseman Mike Papi said Friday when asked about Stinnett.
“I know that their team hasn’t seen Kirby or [left-hander Brandon] Waddell [this season]. For me and other offensive players, I think when you see a pitcher more than once, you know the shape of his pitches and the style of how he’s coming at you. I think it’s an advantage for us to have that underneath our belt.”
The Major League Baseball draft started Thursday night, and the Cubs took Stinnett early in the second round, with the 45th overall pick. By then three Cavaliers had been drafted: Howard (19th overall) by the Reds, junior outfielder Derek Fisher (37th overall) by the Astros, and Papi (38th overall) by the Indians.
“I was speechless,” said Howard, who watched the draft with his parents at a Charlottesville hotel. “It’s just been a dream come true. There’s a lot of emotions. All the work I’ve put in with my teammates, and it’s all coming to fruition. So it’s just been an unbelievable experience.”
Papi said: “The draft in general is kind of a rush of emotions, but we couldn’t really do anything about the draft besides just go out there and play and be relaxed. But now that it’s over for me and Derek and Howard, I can say that it’s a huge relief, because I kind of had a little bit of nerves about it.”
The draft continued Friday, and three more Cavaliers were taken: junior outfielder Brandon Downes (213th overall) in the seventh round by the Royals, junior infielder Branden Cogswell (222nd overall) in the seventh round by the A’s, and Lewicki (250th) in the eighth round by the Tigers.
Through 10 rounds, UVa has had the most players drafted of any school.
A year from now, Kirby is likely to join the long list of players taken in the MLB draft’s early rounds during O’Connor’s tenure. After an uneven freshman season, he’s been dominant this spring. This is O’Connor’s 11th season at Virginia, and he says he’s never had a pitcher improve more than Kirby from one season to the next.
“Now, he had the talent coming in,” O’Connor said. “He was a left-hander coming in that threw 90 to 94 miles per hour and was very highly thought of by the professional people out of high school. But there’s more to it than that. There’s the composure and the poise and the presence that you have to have on the mound, and he now has all that.”
Kirby said: “For him to say that is a huge honor, because he’s been around the game for a long time. He’s seen a lot.”
In 2013, when he was used primarily out of the bullpen, Kirby went 4-1 but posted a 6.06 ERA. He benefited from watching All-America closer Kyle Crockett, but that alone didn’t assure Kirby of breaking through as a sophomore.
“The reality is, some [pitchers] end up getting it and understanding what it really takes, and some of them don’t,” O’Connor said. “That’s just the development process.
“There’s not a magic formula for it. There’s not something that we can just tell them, and then they get that. They’ve got to see it, they’ve got to understand it, and then they’ve got to apply it and figure it out themselves. I’m really glad that he has. It’s made the difference in our team this year, that’s for sure.
“If you want to be one of the top teams in the country and you want have a chance to go to Omaha, you have to have a No. 1 starter like Nathan Kirby.”
UVa won 10 of 11 series during the regular season. In the series the Cavaliers won, they captured the first game nine times, in part because of Kirby’s brilliance on Friday nights.
“I always wanted to be a guy they can count on, and being able to throw the first pitch out there is a huge honor,” he said.
O’Connor said: “I think it’s significant, the opening game, until it’s over. Then you turn your attention to the next ball game. Hopefully when the last out is made [Saturday] we’re on top, and then we can turn our attention to the next one. But certainly you feel good about yourself if you can find a way to win that first one.”
Maryland’s lineup is loaded with left-handed hitters, but O’Connor said that didn’t play a large role in his decision to go with Kirby in the opening game.
“I’ve never been a believer in the matchup, right-handed vs. left-handed,” O’Connor said. “We haven’t historically done a lot of things here where we brought a left-hander out of the bullpen to play matchup or anything like that. It’s really best available guy for us. But certainly with the way that their left-handed hitters swung the bat in the [ACC] tournament, hopefully Kirby being left-handed, that can be an advantage for him and he can hold those guys down a little bit. Because he’s going to need to.”
Kirby said: “I just gotta throw strikes. If they hit me, they hit me. Hopefully they don’t.”