It was Nathan Kirby’s first home weekend appearance of his career and the left-hander was dazzling the Davenport Field crowd of more than 2,500.
A fire-baller by reputation, Kirby was living up to it on this February Saturday against Toledo. The Virginia freshman began the fifth inning by striking out consecutive Rockets on all of seven pitches, some topping out at 94 mph.
To end the frame — and keep the fans buzzing – Kirby figured he’d just stay with the heater and blow it past James Miglin.
Only the Toledo catcher was thinking the same. He sat on a first-pitch fastball, got it up in the zone, and then sent the punctured baseball deep into the left field bleachers.
“It could have been 104 [mph],” Kirby said. “At this level, everybody’s going to hit it.”
So there’s been some shots (of the 350-foot variety) fired at Kirby’s start in a UVa uniform. Entering tonight’s 6 p.m. home game with Miami (19-9, 4-5 Atlantic Coast Conference), the highly touted rookie is carrying a 7.62 ERA in eight appearances.
But there’s been steady improvement.
In his last 4 2/3 innings, Kirby has given up just one run on three hits and has struck out eight.
He hasn’t a yielded a home run since Miglin gave the Hoo Zone a souvenir over a month ago.
“It’s definitely been a huge learning experience,” Kirby said Wednesday after he contributed to the No. 5 Cavs’ 7-1 win over Towson. “Coming out of high school, you could get away with a lot of pitches, but here, if you throw one pitch, no matter what it is, down the middle, you’re going to be turning your back to the plate a lot.
“But it’s been fun.”
Kirby is the reigning Gatorade and ESPN Virginia Player of the Year. As a senior at James River High School in Midlothian, he went 9-1 with a 1.24 ERA. He struck out 90 batters in just over 55 innings.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pounder was considered to be a top 200 prospect for the 2012 Major League Baseball Draft, but he withdrew his name for selection in May, citing it was always his intention to attend and play for UVa.
Kirby’s debut came on the season’s second day, a troubled 1 1/3 innings at East Carolina that included five runs allowed on seven hits.
“I did a lot of thinking after that game,” he said. “It’s trial and error, honestly. You go out and you don’t have it, you give up a couple hits and then go back and learn what you did wrong. You keep progressing during the middle of the week and work on it.
“I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Kirby’s made just one start this season, getting the nod on the third of a rare weekend four-game series in early March.
Unlike his prep days, he’s now having to shine from the bullpen while other first-years Brandon Waddell and Trey Oest have earned their way into the rotation.
But that hasn’t diminished Kirby’s importance, said Virginia coach Brian O’Connor.
“We’re showing, this year, the value of having a really good bullpen,” O’Connor said. “I don’t think we would have won a couple of those games down at Clemson if Nathan Kirby wouldn’t have come in and pitched so well out of the bullpen for us.
“It’s certainly an adjustment for [him], but it’s still pitching. It’s just in shorter stints and [he’s] got to be available more throughout the week.”
The Wahoos (23-2, 7-2) owe a lot of their early success to that relief unit.
In last week’s three-game sweep of then-No. 16 N.C. State, the combination of Austin Young, Josh Sborz and Kyle Crockett worked 12 innings, scattering five hits and yielding just one run.
“You watch and you see what they do and you kind of feed off of it,” Kirby said of his pen mates. “You kind of pick their brains a little bit and kind of learn what they think and what they go through. I think that’s the biggest thing — just kind of feeding off of each other.”
The bullpen cast is deep and talented. Of the six who have made seven or more appearances, Kirby is the only one sporting an ERA over 2.
“We’ve made a concentrated effort to try to be really good in our pen this year,” O’Connor said, “with Austin Young down there and Crockett and [Whit] Mayberry and Josh Sborz and Kirby and other guys. I think we have some real options and some weapons down there.
“You feel good about, if you’re in a position to win going into the back-half of the game, who you’re bringing in the game to put them on the mound to give yourself a chance to win.”
Kirby is quickly figuring out his own victory formula.
It’s sparked by a Feb. 24 pitch he’d like to have back.
“Strikes are the biggest thing,” Kirby said. “Strikes down in the zone.”