Pitching in spotlight as Virginia eyes return to College World Series
Nathan Kirby was cruising. He had a one-hit shutout through eight innings and had struck out the last five batters he'd faced. Having thrown just 96 pitches, he was ready to finish off Arkansas in last Saturday's NCAA regional game.
Kirby never got the chance, but only because Virginia's closer, Nick Howard, needed work, too.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to go out there [for the ninth], but at the same time, I understand," Kirby said Tuesday. "Nick needed to get out there and get some work done and I was completely fine with it."
Howard allowed a hit in the ninth, but finished off the 3-0 victory, and Brandon Waddell followed suit a night later, allowing two runs in 6.2 innings as Virginia (47-13) beat the Razorbacks 9-2 to advance.
Both contests came after opening game starter Artie Lewicki threw seven scoreless innings, allowing just three hits, in a 10-1 victory against Bucknell. All three games capped off a weekend that showed how dominant the Cavaliers' pitching can be.
Virginia allowed three runs in the three games. Its starters went 21.2 innings before allowing any.
The Cavaliers will take on ACC rival Maryland in the best-of-three Super Regional round beginning Saturday at Davenport Field. It's the fifth Super Regional in six years for Virginia, and the Terps' first.
As a postseason veteran, Howard likes what he's seen so far.
"It just seems like every year in the postseason you get that feeling around certain teams that they just have a good brand of baseball going on," said Howard, who has 19 saves. "I think that's something that we've had going on so far throughout regionals and we've been stringing together a lot of great practices, so we definitely have a lot of confidence in what we're doing right now."
It helps that the Cavaliers' defense, spotty last season, is as solid as their pitching. Virginia's 2.29 earned run average and .982 fielding percentage both rank third nationally.
Virginia was riding high at this point last season, too, but sloppy play doomed them as they were swept, 11-6 and 6-5, by Mississippi State.
Kirby said among the lessons they learned: Leave yesterday, good or bad, in the past and stay focused.
"We all had good games and did well," he said of the three starters in the regional round, "but we have to kind of turn the page and kind of forget about it. ... I'm a big believer in forgetting about the past whether it was a good or a bad game.
"We're a completely different team than we were last year."