April 3, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — In interviews before the start of the season, UVa baseball coach Brian O’Connor fielded questions about a variety of topics, among them his weekend pitching rotation, Joe McCarthy’s back and John La Prise’s hip, Josh Sborz’s move to closer, Kenny Towns’ leadership skills, and the team’s heralded freshman class.

So, did Kevin Doherty’s name ever come up?

“No, it didn’t,” O’Connor said with a smile this week.

Six weeks into the season, however, Doherty has emerged as one of the best stories for UVa (19-9, 6-6), which hosts ACC newcomer Louisville (22-7, 11-1) in a three-game series that starts Saturday at 4 p.m. at Davenport Field.

“That’s a testament to Kevin and what he’s done and how hard he’s worked,” O’Connor said.

A junior from Laytonsville, Md., Doherty was used solely as a relief pitcher in his first two seasons at Virginia. The 6-0, 185-pound left-hander made three appearances in 2013, when the Wahoos went 50-12, and 10 last season, when they finished 53-16 after losing in the College World Series championship game.

“I felt like, with him being a third-year now, he would help us out of our bullpen,” O’Connor said. “You don’t know to what degree until you get into the season, but certainly he’s mature and he understands situations and what he needs to do.”

Doherty already has made 11 appearances in relief, posting a 1-0 record and a 2.88 earned-run average. But that’s what not makes his story so compelling. Doherty also had at least one at-bat in 14 games and is hitting .267 with nine RBI.

“Obviously, what he’s doing offensively has been a real pleasant surprise,” O’Connor said.

In this era of specialization, Doherty is a rare two-way college player. At Good Counsel High School, where he usually played in the outfield when he wasn’t pitching, he hit .361 as a senior in 2012. Doherty has always liked to hit, and he came away from the 2014 season convinced he could help the `Hoos with his bat.

In the fall of 2013, Doherty had filled in as an outfielder during the annual Orange & Blue World Series after an injury to a teammate. “I did really well hitting-wise,” Doherty recalled, “and kind of hoped that I could do it [during the season, too].”

That didn’t happen in 2014, but after the team returned from Omaha, Doherty talked to the Cavaliers’ coaches about expanding his role.

“I brought it up in my end-of-the-year meeting and asked them, `What do you think of me hitting?’ ” said Doherty, who bats right-handed.

The coaches liked the idea.

“He was a pretty successful hitter in high school,” O’Connor said. “We just hadn’t really given him the opportunity much. And so we committed to it. We told him we’d let him hit every day in the fall, and he did a nice job in the fall, and eventually we gave him a chance this spring, and he’s doing one heck of a job for us at both areas.”

In addition to taking a class at UVa last summer, Doherty played for the Waynesboro Generals in the Valley League. The Generals used him as a pitcher, but he took batting practice every day.

In the fall, he honed his defensive skills in the outfield and at first base and, at the plate, tested himself against Virginia’s pitchers, a formidable group that includes Sborz, Nathan Kirby, Connor Jones, Brandon Waddell and Alec Bettinger.

“I remember coming in and seeing Nathan Kirby and Connor Jones and being like, `I don’t know how I’m going to be able to adjust to this velocity,’ ” Doherty said. “But just having fun with it and being relaxed has helped.”

In his first at-bat as a Cavalier, Feb. 21 against La Salle, Doherty delivered a pinch-hit single. In that same game, he earned his first save at a Cavalier. Overall, he’s 12 for 45, with a double, a triple and a home run.

The other UVa players call Doherty “our fearless leader,” Bettinger said, smiling, “because he’s just come [through] in the clutch so many times. It’s great to see him have success.”

Doherty said: “I’m just fortunate to have the opportunity to even contribute just a little bit, because these past years we’ve had such great players. But having this opportunity, seeing what it’s like to play day in and day out and really have an effect on how the team does, it’s just an awesome experience.”

It was a frustrating at times to not play more last season, Doherty acknowledged, “but I understand how it worked. We had such a great bullpen and great pitching staff. It’s hard to break [into the rotation], but I knew if I kept working I’d have an opportunity eventually.”

A typical practice day at Davenport starts in the early afternoon for Doherty.

“Usually I’ll get here around 1 and start my pitching work, and get all of my pitching work done before practice,” he said. “And then I’ll try to get some hitting in to warm up a little bit, and then practice starts and I’m fully a position player from then on. So I’ll do outfield, first base and then all of batting practice.”

His work at the plate, Doherty said, has given him “a great perspective on pitching as well, seeing the other side of it, facing Nathan Kirby, Josh Sborz, Connor Jones in practice and seeing how they attack the zone. I think it’s helped me personally as a pitcher to realize that not every pitch has to be perfect. As long as I attack the zone, it’s going to be very difficult for the hitter to make his adjustments.”

Doherty, a history major, has played in the outfield in 11 games this season, and he’s been the designated hitter in two others. On a young team that’s been rocked by injuries, Doherty’s versatility has proven invaluable.

“I think it’s really a credit to Kevin,” O’Connor said. “He was pretty emphatic that he might be able to help us to some degree, and he worked at it. So he deserves the credit, and we gave him a good enough opportunity that he’s shown that he can certainly help us, and it’s in a situation and a time that we need it.

“With McCarthy and La Prise and Jack Gerstenmaier and the other guys out, it’s opened that door for him, and he’s capitalized on it and made a real difference for our team.”

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