By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At 3:02 p.m. Tuesday, Derek Casey threw a 90-mph fastball for a called strike at Davenport Field. With that pitch, Casey was officially back.
A 6-1, 195-pound right-hander, Casey in his third year at the University of Virginia. But a serious injury prematurely ended his freshman season on the UVA baseball team, and Casey missed all of last season while rehabbing.
And so his start Tuesday against VMI was not just another game for Casey, a graduate of Hanover High School near Richmond. It came exactly 22 months from the day when, in a midweek start against Longwood, he hurt his right elbow. Tommy John surgery followed in May 2015.
“I think today was definitely an important step,” Casey said after the 14th-ranked Cavaliers, in their home opener, rallied to defeat the Keydets 9-7 before a crowd of 3,006.
“I had a lot more adrenaline than I do in practice. It was a lot of fun for me. I was pretty blurry out there at first, it was pretty nerve-wracking, but once I threw that first strike, I felt like I had it under control and was just having fun.”
Casey threw 71 pitches in his first appearance since Feb. 21, 2015. He wasn’t perfect — VMI (1-4) had a bases-empty home run in third inning and another in the fourth — but he struck out four, scattered four hits and walked none in his five innings.
“He’s worked so hard. You have a Tommy John surgery, and it’s at least a year to come back. He did everything he could to try to come back and help the team last year, but it just wasn’t ready. I’m just really proud of him.”
As a freshman in 2015, Casey pitched in 10 games and made six midweek starts. He posted a 4-1 record with a 3.06 earned-run average and, after a lat strain sidelined Nathan Kirby, was a candidate to move into the Wahoos’ weekend rotation late in the season. But his elbow injury ended that possibility for Casey.
His goal was to return to help his team late in the 2016 season, and he rehabbed diligently.
“Obviously I really wanted to play, and we were getting to a point in the season where I could maybe help eat up some innings,” Casey said, “but at the same time I had to be mature about the situation and kind of listen to my arm.
“I was probably 95-percent ready to go, but I knew I wasn’t quite there yet, and I didn’t want to go out there and throw and not be at my best.”
In 2015, the `Hoos capped a magical postseason by winning their first NCAA baseball title. The injury-depleted Cavaliers’ postseason run ended last year at the NCAA regional in Charlottesville. Four players who are key members of this year’s team — Casey, pitcher Evan Sperling, outfielder Jake McCarthy and catcher Robbie Coman — missed all or most of the 2016 season for medical reasons.
Not having Casey or Sperling proved especially costly to the `Hoos.
“I liked our ball club from an offensive standpoint,” O’Connor said after William & Mary eliminated UVA from last year’s NCAA tournament. “The pitching, we didn’t have the depth this year that we’ve had on some of our other clubs.”
A 6-6, 215-pound right-hander from Poquoson, Sperling made his UVA debut Saturday against The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. He worked six scoreless innings and earned the win.
“I’ll do anything,” he said. “I’ll come out of the bullpen, start, whatever. I just want to get some innings and help the team win.”
O’Connor said: “Certainly he’ll be a key guy for us. He’s going to need to continue to improve, and I think the more he gets out there, [the more] he will.”
At Hanover High, which won state titles in 2013 and ’14, Casey put up head-turning numbers for head coach Charlie Dragum. Casey, whom the St. Louis Cardinals selected in the 22nd round of the MLB draft in 2014, finished his high school career with a 27-0 record and a 0.51 ERA.
“I think 27-0 had a good amount of luck with it,” Casey said, smiling. “You can be the best pitcher in the world, and that stuff just doesn’t happen. I think a lot of that was luck.”
A history major, Casey increased his workload steadily in practice last spring and then, on the coaching staff’s advice, took the summer off to rest his arm. He lifted weights and worked camps at UVA and then resumed pitching in the fall.
There were times in the fall, Casey recalled Tuesday, when his arm was sore, “but I felt great today.”
He had command of his fastball. “The breaking stuff wasn’t really there,” Casey said. “The changeup was kind of hit or miss. So I’ve got some work to do with that.”
The score was 2-2 when Casey gave way to freshman right-hander Bobby Nicholson, a graduate of nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield, after the fifth inning. The Keydets scored four runs in the top of the seventh to take a 6-2 lead, but that didn’t faze the Cavaliers (4-0).
Virginia rallied for three runs in the seventh and scored four more in the eighth to capture its second straight comeback win.
Through four games, seven players are batting better than .355 for the `Hoos: Coman (.357), Cayman Richardson (.364), Pavin Smith (.389), Cameron Simmons (.417), Ernie Clement (.421), McCarthy (.444) and Nate Eikhoff (.500). That the Cavaliers’ hitters delivered late against VMI (1-4) did not surprise Casey. He faces them regularly in practice.
“I believe in them,” he said. “There were times in the fall where I’d give up seven, eight, nine hits, and I was just like, `Holy cow, give me a break out here.’ ”