By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Monday produced an abundance of good news for Nathan Kirby and the University of Virginia baseball team.
For the first time since April 17, when he strained his left latissimus dorsi muscle against ACC rival Miami, Kirby pitched to batters. The session took place Monday at Davenport Field, where the junior left-hander threw 40 pitches in two innings.
Asked Tuesday morning if anything surprised him about his performance, Kirby smiled. “Yeah,” he said. “I threw strikes. That’s been kind of the one thing all year that I’ve struggled with, and I didn’t have a walk yesterday. That’s all I wanted to do is throw the ball down the middle and get hits.”
UVa head coach Brian O’Connor liked what he saw from Kirby.
“He looked really good,” O’Connor said Tuesday morning. “His fastball was 88 to 92 miles an hour, and he was throwing breaking balls and changeups. I thought he looked good from the standpoint of his strength level. His consistency wasn’t real great, which is to be expected, because he hadn’t faced a batter in seven weeks. A little bit rusty, but he looked fully healthy.”
Monday night brought another positive development for Kirby, a graduate of James River High School in Chesterfield County. The Milwaukee Brewers selected him with the 40th pick of the Major League Baseball draft. Kirby, a two-time All-ACC selection, was taken in the Competitive Balance A round, which comes between the first and second rounds.
“It was an exciting process the entire time,” Kirby said of his draft experience. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. That’s kind of the fun of it. But it’s good to have it over with, so now we can focus. It’s been a real special year for this team, and it’s good to bring the focus back to these guys and what they’ve accomplished.”
The Cavaliers, who are 5-0 in this NCAA tournament, will fly Thursday morning to Omaha, Neb., home of the College World Series. O’Connor said Tuesday that he expects Kirby, who’s 5-2 this season with a 2.28 earned-run average, to be available in Omaha, most likely in relief.
Virginia (39-22), last year’s NCAA runner-up, opens the eight-team CWS against Arkansas (40-23) on Saturday at 3 p.m. (EST) at TD Ameritrade Park.
O’Connor said he’s not sure if he would use Kirby against the Razorbacks. “Maybe the second game or beyond that,” O’Connor said. “Obviously, the deeper we play, I think, the more contributions that he could have.”
On his role in Omaha, Kirby said, “I don’t have any [expectations]. Whenever my name’s called, I’ll be out there.”
He’s thrilled simply to be an option for pitching coach Karl Kuhn. When Kirby got hurt, he wasn’t sure if he’d be cleared to pitch again this season, or if the Wahoos would extend their season long enough for him to return. Coming out of their break for final exams, the `Hoos were in danger of missing the ACC tournament, as well as the NCAAs.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Kirby said. “It’s been a roller-coaster of a year, and it’s certainly finished this way.”
To add to his ordeal, Kirby came down with mononucleosis while he sidelined with the lat injury. He lost 15 pounds while he was sick, dropping to 190, but he’s regained that weight.
“I’m a healthy eater, to say the least,” Kirby said.
It was difficult to sit and watch the `Hoos play without him, especially when they struggled, Kirby said, “but at the same time it’s been a fun ride and it’s been very exciting to see how the freshmen and the older guys have handled the adversity. [The team has] stayed positive throughout the whole year, even through kind of the darker times.”
The first 10 rounds of the MLB draft were held Monday and Tuesday, and Kirby was one of the four UVa players selected. Junior right-hander Josh Sborz also was chosen Monday night. As midnight approached, the Los Angeles Dodgers took him with the 74th overall pick.
“I’ve always been an East Coast guy,” said Sborz, who’s from Northern Virginia, “but now I’m a huge L.A. Dodgers fan. I couldn’t be any happier with the team I’m with. It’s a great organization and great team.”
Two other Virginia juniors — outfielder Joe McCarthy and left-handed pitcher Brandon Waddell — were picked Tuesday, both in the fifth round. McCarthy went to the Tampa Bay Rays with the 148th overall pick, Waddell to the Pittsburgh Pirates at No. 157.
O’Connor said he stayed up till at about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday watching the draft. The third round began Tuesday afternoon.
“I was so excited for Nathan Kirby and Josh Sborz,” O’Connor said Tuesday morning. “Both of those guys have worked so hard. They both had legitimate opportunities out of high school to enter professional baseball, and we’re really happy that they decided to come to Virginia and we got to use their services for three years. They’ve earned everything that they get.”
Kirby became the ninth player from UVa to be selected in the first round or Competitive Balance A round. In 2014, three Cavaliers were among the first 40 players drafted: Nick Howard at No. 19, Derek Fisher at No. 37 and Mike Papi at No. 38.
“We spend a lot of time talking to our players through the recruiting process about player development and then helping them develop their skills for the next level of baseball,” O’Connor said. “The reward comes when the major-league draft happens, and you get to see them drafted and see the fruits of their labor, and then eventually when we’re done, move on to their professional careers. So it’s an exciting time.”
This is the Cavaliers’ 12th season under O’Connor, whose program has established a pipeline to professional baseball. That’s not lost on coveted prospects when they’re considering their college options.
“If you’re a recruit, you definitely have to take that into consideration,” said UVa pitcher Connor Jones, a sophomore right-hander who’s projected to be taken early in next year’s MLB draft.
“I know when I was on the recruiting trail, I really looked at this place as a school where I could get better as a baseball player. For me it wasn’t about money or anything. I wanted to come to school because I thought I would become the best baseball player. It was nothing against Major League Baseball, but I thought here was where I could mature and become the best player I could be and set myself up for success at the next level.”
Sborz (4-2, 1.95 ERA), who has become one of the nation’s premier closers, felt the same way coming out of McLean High. He was confident he would raise his pro stock at Virginia.
“When you come to a great program like UVa, it makes it easier,” Sborz said. “You don’t have to worry about the draft, because you know these coaches are going to put you in the right place to put you in the eyes of scouts. You don’t have to worry about all that stuff. You don’t have to promote yourself as much, just because there’s always people here watching someone, and that just makes it easier.”