Virginia holds off East Carolina in home baseball opener - Cavalier Insider: Cavalier Insider

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Virginia holds off East Carolina in home baseball opener

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Posted: Friday, February 21, 2014 8:24 pm

First pitch was still two hours away, but a small crowd had already formed in the chair-back section of Davenport Field.

Stocked with radar guns, pens and notepads, the group was on hand to selectively take in Friday’s Virginia-East Carolina game with their trained eyes.

The Cavaliers, with their powerful offense, and the Pirates, with their stud of a starting pitcher, provided a haven for Major League Baseball scouts.

More than 20 of them, bundled in jackets, stayed for a contest that had the feel of a June evening.

No. 1 UVa did just enough to squeak by ECU, 3-2, before 3,092 spectators.

“That was a great college baseball game,” said Wahoo coach Brian O’Connor. “For our home opener, what a game.”

Scouts would have been nit-picking if they left Charlottesville disappointed.

The main attraction was Jeff Hoffman, East Carolina’s ace blessed with a rocket launcher for a right arm.

Baseball America has tabbed the lanky 6-foot-4, 192-pounder as the No. 2 college prospect for June’s MLB Draft.

Friday observers would agree with the high ranking.

Hoffman, with a fastball topping out at 97 mph, went 6 2/3 innings, allowing three runs on five hits. He struck out six and walked three.

“As advertised,” O’Connor said. “That guy’s got one heck of an arm.”

But Virginia’s got one heck of a lineup.

Cue one heck of a matchup.

Three crucial Cavalier swings made all the difference.

Brandon Downes, No. 53 on Baseball America’s Draft list, led off the second inning by taking Hoffman’s 1-0 heater over the 370-foot marker in left-center field, landing in seating for the newly inserted “Clubhouse.”

“I took a swing,” Downes said, “and I got a pretty good barrel on it.”

In the third inning, Mike Papi, No. 39 on Baseball America’s list, drove Hoffman’s 95 mph toss into the gap in left-center for an RBI double.

In the sixth, Downes struck again, this time lifting a full-count offering to the Hoo Zone bleachers in left-center to break a 2-2 tie.

“I was just trying to put it in play, to be honest,” Downes said. “And he ended up hanging a 3-2 change-up and I got a barrel on it. I kind of let go with one hand and it just got out.

“I was pumped about that.”

The East Carolina staff had not allowed two home runs in the same game since UVa’s Kenny Towns knocked the Pirates for a pair of grand slams last season.

“Obviously it’s very unique, the fact that Towns did it last year and Downes did it this year,” O’Connor said. “I wish there were runners on base when those happened this year.

“But Brandon Downes is a really athletic, powerful player. He just happened to run into a couple balls.”

Hoffman shared a mound with Virginia’s Nathan Kirby, a sophomore lefty with the kind of stuff to pop on the radar for the 2015 Draft.

Kirby, making his first career Friday start, threw 83 pitches over a career-high 6 1/3 innings, striking out three and walking a pair.

He loaded the bases in the third inning and then was charged two runs when second baseman Branden Cogswell misplayed a two-out Zach Houchins pop-up.

Kirby scattered four hits on the afternoon.

“I honestly just tried to do my part,” Kirby said. “We played great defense today; that was a big key, too. But I honestly just wanted to do my part and I knew that, hopefully, things would fall into place with hitting.

“And it did.”

Kirby (2-0, 1.46 ERA) was relieved by Whit Mayberry and then Nick Howard.

The bullpen duo worked three perfect innings.

Howard, No. 43 on Baseball America’s list, needed 14 pitches in the ninth to collect the first save of his career.

His final toss resulted in a Ben Fultz 3-1 groundout.

That was the 15th consecutive retired ECU batter, putting a fitting end to an afternoon of high-quality baseball.

“This was almost like a postseason game,” Howard said.

Game two between the Cavs (4-1) and Pirates (3-2) comes at 1 p.m., today.

Rotation change

This weekend’s UVa rotation is Kirby, Josh Sborz and Brandon Waddell. This marks the first time in Waddell’s career that he’s not the No. 1 starter.

The sophomore took the loss to Kentucky last week after giving up six runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings.

O’Connor said the switch was not performance-related.

“It didn’t have anything to do with how people pitched,” O’Connor said. “Waddell didn’t pitch all summer, he didn’t pitch all fall. We just needed to give him a couple extra days.

“It was the right thing to do by him.”

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