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Summer in New Hampshire provided new begining for Kirby

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Posted: Friday, April 11, 2014 12:15 am

Inside his living room in Keene, N.H., Phil Stromgren’s laptop remained open to ESPN3.com as the clock approached 11 p.m. 

Stromgren and his wife, Debbie, eight months removed from hosting college baseball’s biggest star of this particular Friday evening, had just spent the better part of the last three hours multitasking. While watching the webcast of the Virginia-Pittsburgh game, the couple also cheered, paced and prayed. 

“We were probably more nervous than him,” Phil Stromgren said.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, Nathan Kirby jogged to the mound at Pitt’s Charles L. Cost Field. UVa’s sophomore left-hander was three outs away from completing a no-hitter.

Some 570 miles to the northeast, the pressure mounted.

“It was like our son was out there,” Phil said.

With two outs, Kirby delivered a 2-2 pitch to Dylan Wolsonovich that the Pitt sophomore sent back through the middle of the infield, forcing Virginia’s Daniel Pinero to lunge to his left. The rangy 6-foot-5, 200-pound shortstop gloved the baseball and tossed to Kenny Towns at first base.

A headfirst slide from Wolsonovich failed to beat the throw. Kirby had made history.

Cue celebratory scenes from western Pennsylvania to Central Virginia to southwest New Hampshire.

“We were screaming and yelling,” Debbie said. “It was marvelous. Just marvelous.”

Entering tonight’s start against No. 14 Clemson, Kirby is 6-1 with a 1.03 ERA. He currently holds the title of ACC Player of the Week as well as Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week.

A year ago, Kirby was a bullpen option with a 4-1 record, but 6.06 ERA.

“I think Nathan Kirby, in my time here at the University of Virginia, is the most improved pitcher that we’ve had from one year to the next,” said 11th-year coach Brian O’Connor.

What’s caused the remarkable turnaround?

Dill pickles, chicken enchilada soup and, as Kirby puts it, “one of the best summers I’ve ever had.”

The struggle

The Stromgrens have a history of housing Virginia players when they come to participate in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.

The list of Cavaliers who have stayed in their finished basement includes Brandon Marsh, Tyler Cannon, John Barr, Mike Papi and Nate Irving.

“We always call our UVa guys our ‘summer sons,’” said Debbie Stromgren, 62, a substitute elementary school teacher. “And that’s what it feels like because they definitely always feel like part of the family. They’re all so personable and they’re so well-mannered. I just can’t say enough about them.”

Because of their Wahoo connection, the Stromgrens, empty nesters, make an annual journey to Charlottesville. Last season it came in late April when Florida State was at Davenport Field.

In game three of that series, Kirby relieved Nick Howard in the seventh inning and failed to record an out, giving up one run on one hit and walking a batter.

“He didn’t do that well,” said Phil Stromgren, 63, owner of a plumbing and heating business.

Phil got a snapshot of Kirby’s disappointing freshman year. While his pitching classmates thrived — see Brandon Waddell going 6-3 as the Friday starter and Josh Sborz carrying a 1.98 ERA while leading UVa in appearances — the 2012 Virginia high school player of the year struggled.

“Everything went wrong,” Kirby admitted. “Nothing seemed like it was going to go right when I pitched.”

In the preseason, Kirby was tabbed by Baseball America to be the ACC’s best rookie. By the postseason, he was just another member of Virginia’s staff.

Kirby’s frustrating campaign came to a close after he threw a scoreless two-thirds of an inning in game one of UVa’s NCAA Super Regional loss to Mississippi State on June 8.

Shortly thereafter, the Midlothian native headed north, going away for the summer for the first time in his life.

Kirby reported to the NECBL’s Keene Swamp Bats with his glove, hat and to-do list from Virginia pitching coach Karl Kuhn.

“Get command of your secondary stuff,” Kuhn told him, “stop trying to strike everybody out and learn you don’t have to work hard to throw hard.”

Fortunately for Kuhn, Kirby was in the perfect environment to adequately complete those tasks.

Welcome home

To Phil Stromgren, the initial jitters were obvious.

“When Nathan first came here, he was definitely nervous,” Stromgren said.

But Debbie, with 12 years of summer hosting under her belt, was a veteran at breaking the ice.

From June to August, their home was going to be Kirby’s home.

“It’s the type of person I am,” Debbie said. “I joke around a lot, so I do all I can to make them at ease and joke around with them.

“I think it just took him a couple days [to get comfortable].”

Off the field, Kirby quickly became adjusted to life sitting by the Stromgrens’ in-ground pool, hosting poker tournaments in the basement, playing with the couple’s Labrador retrievers Onyx and Molly and getting spoiled on Debbie’s culinary skills.

“I jar homemade dill pickles,” Debbie said. “And I got him hooked on soups — chicken enchilada and New England clam chowder.”

Added Kirby: “Phil and Deb were the best host family I could have possibly asked for.”

On the field, however, he was experiencing more mixed results.

After Kirby’s first three outings, he was 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA. His fourth appearance — a start against the Newport Gulls on July 3 — was troublesome. The 6-2, 185-pounder needed 100 pitches to get through 3 2/3 innings. He gave up six runs on five hits and walked five batters.

The Stromgrens were two of 4,958 in attendance that night at Keene’s Alumni Field.

“I think he was trying to nitpick on the corners too much and he was just missing,” Phil said. “I told him, ‘You got to throw strikes in this league. You can’t afford to give these guys free bases.’

“I don’t know if it was my conversation or other people that he talked to, but it seemed to make a difference.”

On Aug. 14, Kirby pitched a scoreless 2 1/3 innings of relief to earn the win in the Swamp Bats’ 7-1 NECBL championship-sealing victory over those same Gulls.

For the summer, Kirby went 4-0 with a 2.22 ERA. He recorded 84 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings. He was named the NECBL’s Top Prospect and Rookie of the Year.

The development of that secondary stuff to mix with his 92-94 mph fastball? It arrived.

“His slider or curveball, whatever it is, was good all summer,” said Swamp Bats coach Kevin Winterrowd. “It was rather dominant.

“With his velocity, if you have a power second pitch like that, you can go a long way with those two pitches because you’re forcing guys to make a decision in a hurry at 92-93.”

Out of the pressure cooker that is University of Virginia baseball, Kirby took a three-month breather in a relaxed setting and transformed into the ace many had always projected him to become.

“Sometimes pitching for schools like Virginia isn’t a heck of a lot of fun because there is a limelight, there’s accountability at almost a professional level at a school like Virginia,” Winterrowd said. “Up here, you’re going to get an opportunity. You’re going right back out there in five days and you need to go out and have fun and go back to doing what you can do.”

Added Kirby: “I think the biggest thing was getting away and learning how to play baseball all over again. When you get here, you get broken down and then you get rebuilt in the summer and then polished in the fall.

“I was lucky enough for that to happen.”

A star is (finally) born

O’Connor said Kirby came back to Charlottesville in late August with a “presence about him that was different than last year.”

Fall progress led to a spot in the spring weekend rotation. Kirby’s first start came on the opening Saturday of the season against VMI in Wilmington, N.C.

Kuhn spotted immediate improvement with Kirby’s approach to Keydet leadoff man Jordan Tarsovich.

“He threw a ball and then threw a strike,” Kuhn said. “Last year, you never knew if he was going to throw another strike.”

Eight outings into his sophomore season, Kirby’s found the zone plenty of times. Against Pitt, he struck out 18 batters, including an unthinkable 10 in a row from the second inning until the beginning of the fifth.

Kirby’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is five to one. Opponents are batting .146 against him. Last year? .313.

“Last year, everything was so fast for him,” O’Connor said. “When he got runners on, he just tried to throw harder. This year, you can watch him pitch and the poise and the calmness that he pitches with is really impressive.”

Out of James River High School, Kirby was considered to be a candidate for early-round selection in the 2012 Major League Baseball Draft. But he stuck with his commitment to UVa, took his lumps as a freshman and is now thriving as a sophomore.

Kirby’s rise has gone unscripted, bringing in new characters along the way.

From their home in the 23,000-person town of Keene, N.H., the place where the revival began, Phil and Debbie Stromgren are tickled to be making an impact.

A day after the no-hitter, the couple phoned their most recent summer guest.

“Nathan’s hope is that he can just keep it up,” Debbie said. “I told him just to think positive and you will.

“Don’t say ‘if.’ Just say, ‘When I pitch again, I will do it again.’ It’s all about positive thinking.”

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