2014-04-23 / Sports

Kirby’s dreamland

Local left-hander emerges as U.Va.’s top ace
By Jim McConnell

After a so-so freshman year, Nathan Kirby has come into his own as the go-to ace for the top-ranked Cavaliers. After a so-so freshman year, Nathan Kirby has come into his own as the go-to ace for the top-ranked Cavaliers. He’s the top pitcher on the No. 1 college baseball team in the country. And Nathan Kirby, the sophomore left-hander from James River High, is only just getting started.

After struggling as a freshman a year ago, Kirby has become consistently lethal on the mound of late. He allowed two runs and struck out 12 in 7 2/3 innings last Friday against North Carolina, leading the top-ranked University of Virginia to a 3-2 Atlantic Coast Conference victory in Charlottesville.

It was yet another in a series of sparkling performances for Kirby, who has emerged as the ace of the Cavaliers’ pitching staff this season while compiling a 8-1 record and 1.36 earned-run average through his first 10 starts.

“Obviously, he’s pretty locked in,” U.Va. coach Brian O’Connor said after the game. “Week after week, he continues to pitch very well. We’re getting to see why he was not only the state [high school] player of the year, but why the professional [scouts] liked him so much. He has really special stuff.”

Nathan Kirby is 8-1 this year for the Virginia Cavaliers. Nathan Kirby is 8-1 this year for the Virginia Cavaliers. After a difficult freshman season, Kirby has regained the form that earned him 2012 Gatorade state baseball player of the year honors at James River, where he routinely mowed down opposing batters with a 92 mph fastball and a sharp-breaking curveball.

His approach, at that time, wasn’t terribly complicated. He found that most teenagers were incapable of making solid contact with his fastball; the few who could hit the heater received a steady diet of devastating curveballs.

Kirby went 9-1 with a 1.24 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings as a high school senior, leading James River to the state semifinals.

He arrived at U.Va. in August 2012 as one of the most coveted recruits in the history of the Cavaliers’ baseball program, but struggled to fulfill those lofty expectations last season.

Pitching mostly out of the bullpen for the first time in his life, Kirby won four of his five decisions, but surrendered 43 hits in 32 innings and finished the season with an uncharacteristically bloated 6.19 ERA.

“College baseball is a different game and it’s a big adjustment,” Virginia catcher Nate Irving said. “He had a hard time adjusting to how precise he had to be. He was thinking too much.”

That process was delayed when Kirby had surgery to repair the labrum in his nonthrowing shoulder last fall, forcing him to miss the second half of the Cavaliers’ off-season workouts.

Unable to lift upper-body weights for about three months while he recuperated from the procedure, Kirby had conservative expectations for what he might be able to accomplish during his sophomore season.

But at some point, he rediscovered the straightforward approach to pitching that had made him so successful in high school – and applied it to the process of retiring college hitters.

“Last year, whenever I’d get a runner on base, I’d try to make the perfect pitch every time. Now I’m just trying to throw strikes and make people hit it,” Kirby said. “I put all the pressure on the hitter and it’s working well.”

Kirby started Virginia’s second game of the season against VMI and was his old dominating self, tossing six shutout innings in a 12-0 rout.

When classmate Brandon Waddell, the Cavaliers’ No. 1 starter last season, was unable to start the opener of a Feb. 21-23 series against East Carolina, Kirby got the assignment and limited the Pirates to two runs over 6 1/3 innings en route to a 3-2 victory.

He’s been Virginia’s “Friday starter” ever since.

To minimize travel, college baseball teams set up their schedules to play conference opponents at the same site in a three-game weekend series. Coaches almost always start their No. 1 pitcher in the Friday night game, meaning Kirby faces the opposing team’s ace every time he takes the mound.

“It’s in the back of your mind, but you can’t worry about it,” he said. “I treat every day the same.”

Kirby has been remarkably consistent so far. He’s 4-1 in six ACC starts this season and hasn’t allowed more than three runs in any conference game.

He bounced back from his lone defeat against Miami by tossing a no-hitter in an April 4 victory over Pittsburgh, striking out 18 in a 4-0 victory that earned him national pitcher of the week honors.

He also shut out Boston College, allowed one run in a no-decision against Virginia Tech and gave up two runs in wins over Clemson and North Carolina.

“Everybody knows what he’s capable of,” Irving said. “He has immense talent; he just needed to trust himself.”

Asked how he has managed to maintain such an even keel in light of his sudden success, Kirby said he’s been “consumed” with doing his job.

“I just try to throw the ball in the general direction of Irving and hope for a good result,” he said. “I’m not making it harder than it needs to be.”

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