June 18, 2015
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OMAHA, Neb. — The moment for which University of Virginia pitcher Nathan Kirby has been waiting — not always with the most patience — will finally arrive Friday. Head coach Brian O’Connor announced Thursday that Kirby, a junior left-hander, will start against Florida in UVa’s third game at the College World Series.
“I’ve been ready for the call for a while now,” Kirby said Thursday after the Cavaliers practiced in the rain at Creighton University.
At 3 p.m. (EST) Friday, in a game ESPN2 will televise, Virginia (41-22) meets Florida (51-17) at TD Ameritrade Park. A victory would send the Wahoos, last year’s NCAA runners-up, back to the best-of-three CWS championship series.
If the `Hoos lose Friday, they’ll take on the Gators again Saturday in a winner-take-all scenario.
“We have two games to play with,” Kirby said Thursday. “Hopefully we can get it done tomorrow.”
For Kirby, whom the Milwaukee Brewers selected early this month with the 40th overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft, the appearance will be his first since April 17, when he strained his left latissimus dorsi muscle against ACC rival Miami.
“My arm’s been ready to go for a while now, but the rest of my body had to catch up,” Kirby said. “The rehab’s mostly for your arm, but your body has to build back its stamina.”
On June 9, two days before the Cavaliers left for Omaha, O’Connor told reporters that Kirby would be available at the College World Series. Until now, though, Kirby hasn’t been needed.
Virginia has used only three pitchers in Omaha: sophomore right-hander Connor Jones and junior right-hander Josh Sborz in a 5-3 win over Arkansas on Saturday afternoon and then junior left-hander Brandon Waddell and Sborz in a 1-0 victory over Florida on Monday night.
“I can’t think that it could have lined up any better for us [from a pitching standpoint],” O’Connor said.
Kirby, who began the season as UVa’s No. 1 starter, isn’t likely to pitch deep into the game Friday, but “that kid’s done a lot of great things in our uniform, and he deserves this opportunity,” O’Connor said. “He’s been a big part of this team, and I’m glad that he’s back pitching for us.”
So are Kirby’s teammates.
“I can’t wait,” sophomore catcher Matt Thaiss said Thursday. “Back earlier in the year it was a lot of fun to catch Nathan. It’s awesome.”
Kirby, a two-time All-ACC performer, is 5-2 this season, with a 2.28 earned-run average.
“You work hard to be in this situation,” O’Connor said, “and you make decisions on personnel and who you use, based on trying to win the national championship. I think he gives us the best chance tomorrow afternoon.”
O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn also took into account the possibility that UVa could play in the best-of-three CWS Finals, which begins Monday night, when they decided to start Kirby against Florida.
“Certainly you have to look at what the potential schedule can be next week and what you have in front of you,” O’Connor said.
Florida, which demolished Miami 15-3 last Saturday night, routed its in-state rival again Wednesday night in an elimination game at TD Ameritrade Park. The final score this time was 10-2.
“I was really pleased with how we responded today from a tough loss on Monday night,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, a former UVa player and assistant, said Wednesday night.
In its eight games in this NCAA tournament, Florida is 7-1. The Gators have scored fewer than eight runs only twice during that span: in a 2-1 win over Florida Atlantic and the 1-0 loss to UVa.
“They’re really, really good,” O’Connor said, “and we’re going to have to certainly play our best ball game tomorrow.”
For Kirby to have to face such a formidable team in his first appearance in two months is less than ideal, O’Connor acknowledged, “but we’re here, and there’s not a lot we can do about it. We’ve had some simulated scrimmages that he has pitched in, and the kid’s been on the big stage before, and I know he’ll go out and give it his best.”
Kirby said: “I want to get out there. I don’t care who it is. It doesn’t matter. It’s still baseball. The bases are always going to be 90 feet away, and the mound’s always going to be 60 feet, 6 inches.”
In these teams’ first meeting in Omaha, the `Hoos managed only five hits but limited the Gators to two singles. That game, both sides know, isn’t likely to have much bearing on the rematch.
“Yeah, we beat `em, but it’s a totally different game,” Thaiss said. “We’ve got a new pitcher out there in Nathan, and they’re a great team. It’s going to be a hard-fought battle. Hopefully we can come out on top.”
Florida will start its No. 1 pitcher, sophomore Logan Shore, on Friday. Shore, a 6-2, 215-pound right-hander, is 10-6 this season with a 2.55 ERA. He pitched five innings last weekend in the Gators’ CWS opener.
“He’s starting Game 1 for them for a reason,” O’Connor said. “Certainly they have a lot of confidence in him, and it’s well-deserved. He’s a very talented young man.”
That also describes Kirby, who’d been hoping for the opportunity to pitch again as a Cavalier. He was cleared by UVa’s medical team June 4, on the eve of the NCAA super regional at Davenport Field, and “we could have put him out there maybe 10 days, two weeks ago,” O’Connor said Thursday.
“I just wanted to build him up, hoping that maybe we’d get to this moment at some point.”
First and foremost, O’Connor said, the coaching staff needed to be sure Kirby was “100-percent fully healthy and capable of doing this. And we felt that he’s been there for two weeks, but we wanted to make sure that we give him and our team the best chance to have success, so that’s why we’ve held it off until this point.
“But he looks good. The offspeed pitches look sharp, and I expect him to go out there and get us off to a good start.”
Kirby is among the current Cavaliers who played leading roles in the team’s postseason run in 2014. Others include Waddell, Sborz, third baseman Kenny Towns, shortstop Daniel Pinero, first baseman Robbie Coman and outfielder Joe McCarthy.
And then there are Jones, Thaiss and outfielder Kevin Doherty, key members of this UVa team who didn’t play in Omaha last year but benefited from the experience.
“Certainly there’s a comfort level,” O’Connor said of his veterans. “They know what to expect. They know how the pregame routine works in the stadium, and things like that. I think that can make a real difference. I think it slows everything down for them and relaxes them and allows them to just go out and play the game of baseball.”