When Brandon Waddell first reported to the University of Virginia baseball team, he was a fresh-faced 158-pounder. But youthful looks and lack of size be damned, he had the mound demeanor — and change-up — of a seasoned veteran.
So, as a rookie, he toed the rubber on Feb. 15, 2013, inside East Carolina’s Clark-LeClair Stadium. Waddell threw out the first pitch for coach Brian O’Connor’s 10th season at UVa.
He worked a 1-1 count to ECU’s Garrett Brooks before getting Brooks to fly out harmlessly to center field.
The Brandon Waddell era was born.
Chapter two begins at noon, Friday, when the sophomore will start for the No. 1 Cavaliers as they take on Kentucky as part of the Hughes Bros. Challenge in Wilmington, N.C.
Virginia’s highly anticipated 2014 season got closer to the starting line Monday when the Wahoos announced their weekend rotation.
Waddell will get the Wildcats on Friday. Fellow sophomore Nathan Kirby gets VMI on Saturday. Another second-year, Josh Sborz, will get UNC Wilmington on Sunday.
That’s the trio .. for now.
“I don’t believe how we start the season will be anywhere near where we are in the middle or the end of the year,” O’Connor said Monday at Davenport Field. “Last year, we started with the three starters of Waddell, [Scott] Silverstein and [Nick] Howard, and it stayed that way all the way through.
“I don’t anticipate that being the case this year, and I think that’s good.”
Because, a bit contrary to 2013, O’Connor has a staff swimming in depth. Beyond the aforementioned headliners, there’s seniors such as Whit Mayberry, Austin Young and Artie Lewicki, as well as talented freshmen such as Connor Jones, Jack Roberts and Alec Bettinger. In between, there’s a sophomore who won a Regional game last June (David Rosenberger) and a junior who carried a 3.38 ERA in 13 appearances, including 12 Sunday starts (Howard).
But a bulkier, fresher Waddell remains the ace.
He’s up to 180 pounds with a left arm that rested all summer and fall.
“In the offseason, I was working on strength and conditioning,” Waddell said. “That was my main thing. Last year, I came in pretty weak, pretty small, especially with the heavy workload that I had. So the main thing was getting my body prepared to have that workload.”
Waddell, the first freshman to start a season opener for UVa since 1986, went 6-3 with a 3.96 ERA in 2013. Among rookies, he was third nationally in strikeouts with 84. Fifteen of those K’s came in his first home start, a six-hit, six-inning shutout of Toledo.
But his last start? Waddell didn’t get out of the fourth inning before giving up six runs, three earned, in an eventual 11-6 loss to Mississippi State in game one of the Charlottesville Super Regional.
Boosting endurance was an obvious goal of the offseason.
“I think that’s the nature of getting back into it,” Waddell said, “getting your body prepared to go for the long haul. Pitching in games is very taxing on your body.”
The 6-foot-3 Texan didn’t pick up a baseball again until December.
Two months later, he’s back where he was last February — at the top of the rotation for a team with College World Series aspirations.
“I was actually thinking about that the other day, just the emotions I had going into last year,” Waddell said. “This year is obviously a little bit different knowing what I’m getting myself into and what it will be like.
“But it’s still really exciting, you’re still ready to get going and you have that adrenaline with you.”
Plus the continued support of teammates.
“[Waddell’s] going to be pretty special,” said preseason All-American outfielder Derek Fisher. “It was incredible to watch him last year, to pitch in the spot he was in, to be our Friday night starter as a freshman and do what he did.”
Added reigning All-ACC infielder Branden Cogswell: “You see him transform and you’re happy you’re part of that experience for him.”
Setting the rotation
As for Waddell’s weekend mates, it’ll be a debut of sorts for Kirby and Sborz.
Together, they have five career starts — all coming in mid-week action.
Kirby, 4-1 with a 6.06 ERA last season, went 2-0 with a 2.42 ERA over the summer in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.
“I think Nathan Kirby is significantly improved from last year,” O’Connor said. “The poise, his ability to manage situations in the game has gotten significantly better.”
Sborz went 3-0 with a 1.98 ERA last season.
“I really like Josh Sborz,” O’Connor said. “Josh is a guy that has a great arm and a good breaking ball.”
Gone from last season’s 50-win team is Kyle Crocket, a fourth round pick of the Cleveland Indians and, according to O’Connor, the best closer to ever come through UVa.
Entering this weekend, O’Connor said the Cavs are exploring the option of Howard or Mayberry to take Crockett’s spot.
Howard is a reigning All-ACC utility player and will still factor in the lineup as a first baseman, third baseman or designated hitter.
Mayberry returned from elbow surgery last year to throw in 22 games, including four late-season starts.
“He’s back in the form that he was in before he got hurt,” O’Connor said, “and that was pitching a lot of quality innings for us.”
Up the middle
Howard, Mike Papi and Joe McCarthy are the first base options. At second, Cogswell, the full-time shortstop in 2013, could slide over, putting freshman Daniel Pinero at short.
“What’s most important for us to do is put our best double play combination there together,” O’Connor said. “I think a lot of times people say, ‘Well, you have to put your best shortstop at shortstop.’ I get that, but it’s about the middle of the infield and what is the best combination we have.
“We certainly have some options.”