By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – A stiff wind blew Wednesday at Disharoon Park, home of the University of Virginia baseball team, prompting a smile from pitching coach Karl Kuhn as he reflected on junior right-hander Noah Murdock’s freshman season.
“He was a feather,” Kuhn said. “We couldn’t pitch him on a day like today, because he’d blow off the mound.”
A graduate of Colonial Heights High School, the 6-foot-8 Murdock is considerably sturdier now than when he enrolled at UVA, even if he’s still lean.
“I’ve gained 30 pounds since I’ve gotten here,” Murdock said. “It may not look like it, but I’m up to around 190 right now, instead of 160.”
Kuhn said: “We were joking about it the other day: You look at Noah Murdock today, and you wouldn’t have thought that in three years he’s put on over 30 pounds of muscle. He still looks like a fungo bat with ears, right? But he’s got 30 more pounds of muscle on him.”
Not only is he bigger, he’s healthier.
Murdock arrived at UVA in the summer of 2016 with a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, and he didn’t pitch in practice that fall. He was available once the 2017 season started and eventually earned a spot in the Cavaliers’ weekend rotation. But his first college season ended prematurely that spring, in the middle of May, when the pain in his elbow became too severe for him to pitch through.
He entered his first year knowing his elbow might have to be surgically repaired at some point, “but I think what got me through [most of the 2017] season was the adrenaline rush,” Murdock said, “and being able to pitch at the collegiate level was something I was really excited about.”
Dr. James Andrews, the renowned orthopedic surgeon, performed Tommy John surgery on Murdock’s elbow on June 1, 2017. Rehab followed, and it went exceedingly well for Murdock.
Teammates who’d undergone Tommy John surgery, including Derek Casey and Evan Sperling, would ask him if he’d experienced any of the setbacks that had slowed their recoveries.
“And I would never have any problems,” Murdock recalled. “I didn’t have any bumps in the road.”
After the calendar flipped from 2017 to 2018 and his workload increased in practice, it became apparent that Murdock might be able to pitch for the Wahoos as a sophomore. Still, that possibility was not made public.
“When we sat down, me and the coaching staff, we kind of talked about it, and we weren’t sure, exactly,” Murdock said. “I know that I felt good, but I didn’t know if I was going to pitch for sure.”
In the end, he decided to play, in large part to help the ‘Hoos in their pursuit of a 15th straight NCAA tournament bid.
“I thought we had a chance to make a playoff run, and I wanted to be there for that,” Murdock said. “Unfortunately, it just didn’t happen.”
He made his 2018 debut on April 11 against Radford. Murdock didn’t fully regain the form he’d showed as a freshman, when he posted a 3-1 record with a 3.32 earned-run average, but he made five appearances last season, with starts against ACC foes Louisville, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.
In 13.1 innings, Murdock went 2-2 with a 5.40 ERA.
“I think it was great for Noah to throw a little bit last year,” Kuhn said. “When you come off of an injury like that, a season-ending injury, you never really quite know if you’re going to be the same, if you’re going to come back or not, and you have to wait a full year. The way it landed for him on the calendar, he was able to come back and to show himself that he could do it again and give himself confidence before he actually has to do it again this year.
“So I think it was win-win on so many levels for him, but most importantly his health is good and his confidence is great.”
The Cavaliers’ 16th season under head coach Brian O’Connor begins this weekend in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the inaugural MLB4 Collegiate Baseball Tournament, which brings together four of the nation’s top programs.
“I’m excited to get out there and get things rolling,” said O’Connor, whose record at UVA is 668-264-2. “I know for sure there’s not a better opening tournament in this country.”
Sophomore right-hander Griff McGarry will start on Friday against second-ranked Vanderbilt on Friday, followed by freshman right-hander Mike Vasil against 17th-ranked TCU on Saturday.
Murdock will take the mound Sunday against 24th-ranked Cal State Fullerton, UVA’s third and final game in Scottsdale.
“I’m feeling really good,” Murdock said. “I’m ready to go.”
He spent last summer in Charlottesville, strengthening his arm and his body. “I didn’t play summer ball,” Murdock said. “I was able to get on a nutrition plan, gain some weight, and lift a little bit.”
Murdock believes the experience he gained last season will prove invaluable. “I didn’t pitch much,” he said, “but regardless of whether I pitched a lot or not, I think being engaged is important. It’s really easy to be hurt and not follow the game and check out, but coming back and pitching a little bit, especially against some good teams, will help me tremendously for this season and got me excited to come back and pitch.”
Will he throw harder this season?
“It’s hard to tell right now,” Murdock said. “We’re still kind of building up and getting used to the higher pitch counts. My velocity’s about the same, but the biggest thing for me is, I threw 80 pitches the other day, and that’s the first time I’ve thrown 80 pitches in almost two years. I’m healthier than ever, which feels good.”
Murdock, whose twin brother, Jacob, is a Marine stationed in Washington, D.C., is a religion major at UVA. Growing up in Colonial Heights, a city about 25 miles south of Richmond, he excelled in baseball, basketball and volleyball.
At Virginia, he’s one of several pitchers – others include Chesdin Harrington and Evan Sperling – who missed part or all of last season with injuries.
“I think that’s kind of our motivation right there, not being able to play the whole year,” Murdock said. “I think we’ve kind of come together and realized that we have a statement to make. Nobody knows who we are, so we’re going to make a name for ourselves and have a good year.”
The ‘Hoos finished 29-25 last season, missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in O’Connor’s tenure.
“I think the standard is still to be a playoff baseball team, a team that can go deep in the playoffs,” Murdock said. “From a pitching staff standpoint, we don’t have a lot of guys returning that threw a lot of innings last year. I think [sophomore] Andrew Abbott is probably the number one guy, and he was the closer. The whole rotation is basically new. We have a bunch of new arms, young guys, returning guys that didn’t pitch a lot last year. But from what I see in scrimmages and practice, they look amazing, and I think we have a lot to prove.”
He’s no longer the skinny kid who pitched for the ‘Hoos in 2017. Murdock said he believes the extra weight “will benefit me more late in the season when my body starts to get tired and fatigued a little bit.”
Eventually, he said, he’d like to get up to 205 or 210, but “it’s hard to picture what I’d look like with that kind of weight.”
Nor is it easy, Murdock said, for him to put on pounds.
“I would trade some height for some weight any day,” he said, laughing.