DURHAM, N.C. — The way the baseball shot off Andy Perez’s bat, you couldn’t blame the Duke second baseman if he started his home run trot.
The more it towered toward the left field wall, the louder the cheers grew from those garbed in blue and white behind the backstop at Jack Coombs Field.
But a collective sigh soon followed. The ball drifted foul and out of play.
Even when Nathan Kirby made a mistake, he got a strike.
Virginia’s ace was that good Saturday.
The No. 1 Cavaliers, courtesy of Kirby, opened ACC play by squeaking by the Blue Devils, 3-2, in game one of a doubleheader. In game two, they fell, 3-2, when pitching wasn’t nearly as efficient.
“In game one, I thought Nathan Kirby threw a terrific ballgame,” said UVa coach Brian O’Connor. “He threw strikes, got them to put the ball in play and we played good defense and did enough offensively to win the ballgame.
“In the second game, quite frankly, I wasn’t real happy with the competitiveness that we played with.”
Kirby went six scoreless innings, allowed one hit, struck out a career-high nine batters and walked one. The left-hander, appearing for the third time as UVa’s No. 1 starter, had filthy stuff, effectively mixing his electric fastball with a healthy blend of sliders and change-ups.
In the second inning, Chris Marconcini led off by singling to right field. Duke wouldn’t put another runner on base until Kenny Koplove drew a walk to lead off the sixth. In between, Kirby retired 12 in a row, registering seven strikeouts.
“I just threw strikes,” Kirby said. “We played really well defensively and that kept me out of trouble.”
Perez followed Marconcini in the sixth and took the fourth pitch he saw from Kirby for that ride to left field.
“The way I look at it, he hit it hard, but it went foul,” Kirby said. “It didn’t really count for him and, honestly, it didn’t really hurt me. I just kind of threw it out. I had a job to do and that was to either make him put the ball in play or force him to put the ball in play.
“Thankfully, he missed it.”
Shaking off the threat, Kirby followed with a fastball for a swinging strike moments later, taking Perez from a potential home run hitter to another one of his K victims.
“It’s a sign that he doesn’t get wrapped up in the emotion of the game or a particular play or a particular pitch,” O’Connor said. “He just comes back and tries to do his job. Certainly, he’s showing that’s the right way to go about it.”
Kirby (4-0, 0.74 ERA) made 86 pitches and 61 were strikes. That Cavalier precision remained when O’Connor made his game one calls to the bullpen.
Relievers Whit Mayberry (two innings) and Nick Howard (one) didn’t issue a single walk and struck out four.
Howard, the junior closer who entered Saturday without allowing a run in five appearances this season, gave up a two-out, two-run homer to Marconcini, but the righty still earned his third save.
Mike Papi’s solo home run, his third of the year, in the seventh inning proved to provide the winning margin.
Game two produced a similar result, but took a totally different vibe.
Where the Wahoo staff pounded the zone in the afternoon, it needed GPS to get there in the nightcap.
UVa walked nine Duke batters, including an eye-popping eight free passes from starter Josh Sborz.
In the fourth inning, Sborz, with two outs, walked four straight Blue Devils to bring Duke into a 2-all tie. David Rosenberger replaced Sborz and, naturally, walked Aaron Cohn on four pitches, plating the go-ahead Blue Devil run.
In 3 2/3 innings, Sborz threw 78 pitches. Only 33 went for strikes.
“Sborz looked out of sync today for whatever reason,” O’Connor said. “He’s got to be better than that and he knows that.”
Virginia’s offense was stymied by Duke starter Andrew Istler for eight innings (five hits, one earned run) until righty Robert Huber closed the Cavs in the ninth, stranding the bases loaded by striking out Papi, an All-American with three career grand slams.
“Obviously, Mike Papi’s done really great things for us,” O’Connor said. “He’s probably leading us in hitting. You feel pretty good with that guy at the plate, but you got to find a way to put the ball in play.”
UVa (10-3) gave up one hit, but lost to Duke (8-6).
“It’s frustrating,” O’Connor said, “but we move on.”
Today’s series finale is scheduled for a 1 p.m. first pitch. The game will be webcast by ESPN3.