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June 12, 2014

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — With two outs in the fifth inning Saturday, Whit Mayberry took over on the mound and Nathan Kirby took a seat in the home dugout at Davenport Field.

Kirby’s day was done, and there was no guarantee the sophomore left-hander would get another opportunity to pitch for the UVa baseball team this season.

Mayberry dominated the final 4.1 innings Saturday, but that wasn’t enough to keep Maryland from prevailing 5-4 in the opening game of the NCAA tournament’s best-of-three Charlottesville Super Regional.

Had the Terrapins won again Sunday or Monday, Kirby’s uncharacteristic struggles in Game 1 might have haunted him through the offseason. He knew that. Still, he remained optimistic, especially after watching Mayberry’s performance in relief.

“I never once doubted that we would win the series,” Kirby said Wednesday at Davenport Field. “I told some of my teammates, `You’re not going to have a good day every day.’ It was great that Whit went out there and shut `em down and kind of turned the tide for us to go out there in Game 2 and whip up on `em.”

The Cavaliers defeated the Terps 7-3 on Sunday afternoon, and Game 3 was even more one-sided. UVa pounded Maryland 11-2 before a sellout crowd at Davenport Field to advance to the College World Series for the third time in six seasons.

That means, among other things, that Kirby will pitch again this season for Virginia (49-14), whose first game in Omaha, Neb., is Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern against Mississippi (46-19).

Kirby, 9-2 with a 1.73 earned-run average, has been the Wahoos’ No. 1 starter virtually all of the season. Head coach Brian O’Connor has yet to say who will start against Ole Miss, but Kirby can expect to pitch at some point in Omaha.

His cheering section at TD Ameritrade Park is likely to include his parents, his younger brother and his grandfather.

“It’s awesome,” Kirby said. “I’m already super excited for it. I’m already getting nervous, getting the butterflies in my stomach just to be out there. But it’s definitely an honor, to know how hard the guys before us worked to get there and to think that our team this year has worked that hard and how well we’ve played all year.”

Of the eight teams awarded national seeds in the 64-team NCAA tournament field, only No. 3 Virginia and No. 7 TCU made it to Omaha. Joining them there are Ole Miss, Texas Tech, Vanderbilt, Texas, UC Irvine and Louisville.

The eight teams are split into two groups, each of which will play a double-elimination tournament. The two winners will meet in the CWS Finals, a best-of-three series that starts June 23.

Kirby, a graduate of James River High School in Chesterfield County, has piled up postseason awards. He was named ACC co-pitcher of the year last month and a Baseball America first-team All-American this week. Louisville Slugger also placed Kirby on its All-America first team.

In his first NCAA appearance this season, Kirby allowed only one hit in eight shutout innings May 31 in UVa’s 3-0 win over Arkansas in the Charlottesville Regional. Kirby, who will pitch this summer for the U.S. collegiate national team, was named the regional’s most outstanding player.

“He’s kind of special,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “He’s a guy that every coach would like pitching for him on Friday night [to start a three-game series], because you’ll probably be 1-0 going into Saturday.”

A week later, however, in the super regional opener against Maryland, Kirby gave up seven hits and five runs and struck out only two before O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn called on Mayberry.

“I don’t think that there was anything that Kirby was doing differently mechanically that I could see or Coach Kuhn could see,” said O’Connor, a former college and pro pitcher. “Sometimes you just have those days, and sometimes you’re able to have those days where you’re up in the zone, and you’re able to get away with it, and you kind of grind through the game.

“Maryland didn’t let him get away with it. He’s had games this year, and other guys too, where their stuff really hasn’t been up to par, but they’ve found a way to collect outs and grind through six innings, and Maryland just didn’t let him do it. That was to their credit.”

The Terps “hit every mistake I made,” Kirby said. “Every time I left the ball up, it seemed like they were ready for it.”

Mayberry said: “He was attacking hitters, and sometimes that happens. Balls get through. It’s about what our team does. It’s not about the individual.”

On the eve of the NCAA tournament last month, Kirby talked about the approach he takes. “I try to forget about the last start, whether it was a great start or a bad start,” he told reporters.

That hasn’t changed.

“Whether your first game of the year is bad or your last one’s bad, you can’t always control the outcome,” Kirby said Wednesday, “but now it’s just time to turn the page and move on and worry about the next game.”

He’s not concerned about proving anything to anyone outside the program. “I think mostly I want to get out there and show my teammates that I can do it, because I’m more concerned with putting my teammates in a position to win, and just trying to help the team to win,” Kirby said.

“The team means more than anything to me. I try not to concern myself with everything off the field.”

At a press conference last week, Kirby admitted he was nervous heading into the super regional. But that didn’t affect his performance against Maryland, he emphasized Wednesday.

He was also nervous before his April 25 start at Florida State, where he allowed three hits and struck out seven in six innings to earn the victory, and before his April 4 start at Pittsburgh, where he pitched a no-hitter, striking out 18 in the first complete game of his college career.

“I’m always nervous,” Kirby said, smiling. “That doesn’t change. I’m one of the most nervous people on the field, but that had nothing to do with it.”

Of the players on the UVa team that advanced to the College World Series in 2011, three are still in the program: pitchers Mayberry, Artie Lewicki and Austin Young. Their advice to their younger teammates about Omaha?

“All they’ve said is, `Soak it in,’ ” Kirby said. “This may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hopefully not. But all they’ve said is to soak it in. It’s going to be a blast, and just have fun.”

The UVa-Ole Miss winner will meet TCU (47-16) or Texas Tech (45-19) at 8 p.m. Tuesday. The Virginia-Ole Miss loser will face the TCU-Texas Tech loser in an elimination game at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

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