2013-05-08 / Sports

James River alum Kirby pitches for hometown fans at The Diamond

By Jim McConnell

Virginia freshman Nathan Kirby earned his third victory of the 2013 season last week against VCU. Virginia freshman Nathan Kirby earned his third victory of the 2013 season last week against VCU. When he committed to play baseball for the University of Virginia, Nathan Kirby understood that everything he accomplished as a high school pitcher would be meaningless once he got to college.

The James River High graduate knew that Division I hitters wouldn’t be dazzled by his résumé or overpowered by his 94 mph fastball.

Even so, Kirby’s freshman season at U.Va. has been an eye-opening experience in many ways.

“I’m still just getting used to college baseball,” Kirby said in an interview last week after he earned the victory in Virginia’s 11-3 rout of VCU at The Diamond. “It’s a huge difference.”

Scheduling a midweek, non-conference game – the Cavaliers’ last before a nine-day break for final exams – offered Virginia coach Brian O’Connor the luxury of giving Kirby a rare start in front of his hometown fans.

The 6-foot-2-inch, 185-pound left-hander responded with his most effective performance in nearly a month. He retired the Rams in order in the first inning, then overcame a second-inning walk to Manchester High alum Chris Ayers to finish off his first scoreless out ing since April 12.

“He’s working on staying within himself and not trying to do too much,” Virginia catcher Nate Irving said. “When he just lets it happen like he did tonight, he’s pretty darn good.”

Kirby, who was selected as the 2012 Gatorade Virginia Player of the Year after compiling a 9-1 record with a 1.24 earned-run average as a senior at James River, has learned that lesson the hard way this season.

He came out of the bullpen and made his first appearance as a Cavalier on Feb. 16 at East Carolina. The Pirates rocked him for seven hits and five earned runs in just 1. innings.

In his first college start March 2 against Harvard, Kirby surrendered five hits, three walks and three runs in 2. innings.

“You have to get the first strike so you can throw your off-speed stuff,” he said. “If you make a mistake, it’s going to get hammered.”

Kirby enjoyed his most dominant performance a month later, blanking Liberty over 3. innings with six strikeouts on April 2. But he allowed nine runs over his next five appearances, leaving him with a 6.11 ERA through his first 19 outings as a collegian.

“You can see the talent is there,” O’Connor said. “He’s been a little inconsistent, but that’s typically what freshmen are. In high school he was able to blow the ball by most kids. You can’t do that on this level of baseball. That’s why location and command are so important.”

To that end, Kirby has been working overtime to refine his mechanics during bullpen sessions with Virginia pitching coach Karl Kuhn.

“Whether you’re throwing 80 [mph] or 90, you have to be able to repeat your delivery to throw strikes consistently,” Kirby added.

Kirby’s velocity and knee-buckling curveball made radar gun-toting professional baseball scouts a fixture at James River’s home games last spring. He was projected to be selected within the first five rounds of last June’s Major League Baseball draft until he wrote MLB and requested that his name be removed from consideration.

That move likely cost Kirby a six-figure signing bonus, but he doesn’t regret his decision to play college baseball instead of jumping straight to the pros.

“It’s been an awesome experience,” he said. “Whether it’s a good day or a bad day, we’re always learning.”

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