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Howard playing criticial role for UVa baseball team

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Posted: Friday, March 21, 2014 11:45 pm

Nick Howard is batting .354. He has an ERA of 1.59.

Ho-hum.

Playing for a national championship-contending baseball team loaded with future MLB Draft picks, Howard’s value to third-ranked Virginia can sometimes get taken for granted.

Until he becomes the sole reason behind a crucial league win.

Last Saturday, UVa and Boston College were tied at 1 with two outs in the 10th inning when coach Brian O’Connor emerged from the home dugout at Davenport Field and walked to the pitcher’s mound. Connor Jones, after 4 2/3 scoreless innings, was done.

It was Howard time.

To that point, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound junior, as the designated hitter, had already batted four times, drawing a second inning walk and laying down a sacrifice bunt in the eighth inning.

But his day was only getting started.

Howard, the Cavaliers’ closer, held the Eagles scoreless over the final 2 1/3 innings, his longest outing of the season.

When he came to the plate for a sixth time in the 12th inning, he was following a Joe McCarthy double. On cue, Howard took a full count offering from BC reliever Nick Poore up the middle for a single, scoring McCarthy and giving the Wahoos a dramatic 2-1 victory.

“I’m tired already and he does both,” freshman shortstop Daniel Pinero said afterward. “It’s crazy what he can do. He’s just a huge part of this team. Without him, it would be difficult.”

Virginia (17-3, 5-1 ACC) is on a seven-game win streak entering tonight’s series opener at No. 25 Miami (12-10, 4-2). First pitch from Alex Rodriguez Park is scheduled for 7 p.m. If recent form holds true, Howard could be making an impact as early as 7:15 and as late as 10:05.

Using last season’s success as a springboard, the Olney, Md., native is taking this versatility thing to a new level in 2014.

As the everyday third baseman/normal Sunday starter, Howard earned first-team All-ACC honors as the utility player in 2013.

He batted .323 with three home runs and 38 RBI while going 6-4 with a 3.38 ERA.

Rarely did those roles clash on gameday. If Howard was pitching, he wouldn’t hit. If he was in the lineup, he wouldn’t pitch.

But with the departure of All-American closer Kyle Crockett, Howard became O’Connor’s No. 1 option out of the bullpen in late-game situations.

The right-hander has an electric fastball that tops out in the mid-90s and can package it with an effective curveball and nasty slider.

So far, he’s five-for-five in save chances. In 11 1/3 innings, he’s given up just two runs on seven hits.

“He’s pitching great,” O’Connor said. “He’s pitching like a bulldog on the mound. Certainly, he’s got terrific stuff and he’s got a very bright future in this game.”

Since star left fielder Derek Fisher went out with a broken hamate bone two weeks ago, O’Connor’s had to tinker with his lineup. This means Howard rarely has a day off anymore.

The preseason All-American has started the last six games — either as DH or at first base — and has produced with 10 hits and seven RBI in 22 at-bats.

“I just try to stay in the game and try to keep both sides of the game separate and not translate anything from the other one,” Howard said. “It’s just really focusing on each pitch. I know it sounds cliché, but that’s what I do.”

From Joe Koshansky to Sean Doolittle to Danny Hultzen, O’Connor’s crafted his fair share of talented two-way players at Virginia.

In what’s likely his last season in Charlottesville, Howard is making a push to top them all.

“You know that we’ve had a long history of guys that have done it,” O’Connor said. “Nick, he’s carrying a lot of this team on his shoulders and he’s doing a terrific job of being one of the guys that’s leading this ballclub.”

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