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Ratcliffe: Irving a pitching coach on the field for Cavaliers

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Posted: Friday, June 7, 2013 9:00 pm | Updated: 9:34 am, Sat Jun 8, 2013.

Every time Virginia pitching coach Karl Kuhn sees Cavaliers catcher Nate Irving trot out to the pitcher’s mound to settle down a teammate, Kuhn can’t help but think of a story.

In 2006, after Florida State’s then-veteran catcher Aaron Cheesman was no longer in the program, Kuhn noticed that legendary Seminoles’ coach Mike Martin was noticeably making a lot more trips to the mound than in previous years. Kuhn couldn’t help but say something to Martin.

“I said, ‘Hey 11 (Martin’s number), I’ve seen you walk to the mound a lot more this year with the same pitching staff,’” Kuhn remembered. Martin replied that it was amazing how an experienced catcher can save a coach from having to make that visit to the mound.

Over the course of this 50-win season for UVa, Kuhn understands exactly what Martin was talking about.

“I will be on the edge of my seat in the dugout, getting ready to head out and I’ll see Nate headed to the mound,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn lets the situation play out because he knows that Irving is not just going out because he’s the team’s catcher but because he legitimately cares about each of Virginia’s pitchers as a teammate and a leader.

Irving has played a key role all season long and will do so this weekend as the Cavaliers take on Mississippi State in the best-of-three NCAA Super Regional here with a trip to the College World Series at stake. Irving will be counted on to handle UVa’s pitchers, but he also is one of the team’s hottest bats: he’s hitting a team-high .368 in Virginia’s six postseason games.

Getting to this point has been an interesting journey for the Wahoos’ sophomore.

Irving grew up as a New York City kid (his mom taught both of UVa football great Tiki Barber’s sons in elementary school), but wasn’t spotted by the Cavaliers until the catcher was playing on a traveling team from Memphis, Tenn., during a summer tournament.

Kevin McMullen, the Cavaliers’ associate head coach and recruiting coordinator, got a call from a contact on the Dulin Dodgers team out of Memphis, picquing his interest about a potential catcher. After scouting Irving for a week, Coach Mac liked what he saw, a big and physical kid who could catch the ball, played with energy, and was intelligent, the latter being most important.

“To work with Karl (Kuhn), you gotta know Japanese without reading the book,” Coach Mac quipped. “So, I think Nate was a good fit from that standpoint.”

The only thing McMullan didn’t like about Irving was that he was too big: 6-foot, 255 pounds. He didn’t think the kid could handle the physical grind of playing five days a week in college ball at that size and told Irving once he committed to the program to trim down.

Irving did exactly what McMullan asked and reported 37 pounds lighter, which really impressed the UVa coaching staff, Coach Mac in particular.

“I was pretty heavy coming out of high school and so I knew that losing weight was something I needed to do for my health and to be able to survive a college season,” Irving said this week. “I was always a strong kind but I was excited to get in shape because I knew over the long run it would help me be successful as a college player.”

Irving had chosen Virginia over several other solid programs such as Vanderbilt and Louisville.

Winning the starting job as a freshman was a bit remarkable and challenging, but he delivered by starting 49 games, hitting .279 with 35 RBI.

“I felt my GPS was off for a little while, but I kept grinding every day and learning as much as I could,” Irving recalled.

McMullan was impressed that the freshman managed to handle the fatigue of catching, the mental preparation and film study, in addition to the academic aspect of UVa. Again, the intelligence showed through.

Although Kuhn believed it was a different kind of intelligence that carried Irving through that first year.

“It’s not as much book smarts as street smarts and the baseball field is our street,” Coach K said. “He sees things. We’ve taught him what to look for and he really understands it. He really wants to know all the intricacies of the game plan from my end and asks great questions.”

In other words, he understands Kuhn’s Japanese.

While the coaching staff doesn’t ask the starting catcher to hit .350 and 15 bombs a year or to throw out 80 percent of the runners, it does require that he handles the pitching staff, block balls in the dirt and be productive, which is exactly what Irving has done and more. He’s a .286 hitter with 30 RBI this season, but can also be depended upon to bunt (team-high 12 sacrifice bunts, third in the ACC). Not too shabby for the No. 9 hitter in the batting order.

“He’s a .286 hitter, but a clutch .286,” Kuhn smiled. “What he does for us behind the plate is immeasurable.”

Irving went about his business last year, realizing the expectations but trying not to put too much pressure on himself. He believes the support of his coaches and teammates helped him mature quickly as a player and a person.

A self-confessed baseball nerd, he has always been the kind of kid who likes to watch as much video of himself, his pitchers and opponents as possible, going back to his high school days. He likes to pick out little things and then compare notes with Kuhn.

Those trips to the mound that saves Kuhn extra visits is second nature to the man behind the plate.

“I’ve always tried to focus on helping whoever is on the mound be the best they can be that certain day,” Irving said. “I take a lot of pride in a pitcher being confident having me behind the plate, having them trust me.”

The catcher has worked hard to get to know the personalities of each Cavalier pitcher, their personalities, what makes them tick, so he can intuitively know when it’s time to call time out for a trip to the mound and exactly what to say when he gets there.

“I try to make it short and sweet, get their focus back on track,” Irving said.

Now it’s down to the nitty-gritty of the season, the catcher can’t wait for this afternoon’s opener of the Charlottesville Super Regional, but he hasn’t forgotten last week’s three-game sweep over Army and Elon to get here.

“I’m excited to play in front of our fans,” Irving said. “I can’t tell you how awesome it was to hear everybody chanting UVa at the end of the regional. That gave me goose bumps.”

He’s hoping for more this weekend.

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