Forgive Nick Howard if his heart was racing when he stepped onto Davenport Field the past couple of days. After two years away from playing shortstop, he was back in the saddle again.
A former shortstop in high school, the sophomore had played third base for Virginia this season until regular shortstop Branden Cogswell was sidelined with a fractured middle finger on his throwing hand. Now, it’s Howard’s job until Cogswell returns.
Well, his job on the days that he doesn’t pitch, like today for instance when the right-hander will try to sweep the three-game series against visiting Duke. Howard, who owns a 3.18 ERA, will be on the mound and freshman John LaPrise will start at short.
If you’re concerned about Howard’s endurance today, put your worries aside. Because Virginia blew out the Blue Devils with a 22-hit, 17-8 win on Saturday, Cavaliers coach Brian O’Connor was able to pull Howard out of the lineup after only 4 1/2 innings.
Besides, Howard is accustomed to playing third and pitching (he’s done both in three games this season). He’s on the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award watch list.
Tweaking the lineup
LaPrise, who clocked some time at short Saturday, has played a little there and at second throughout the season but has mostly DH’d. In reality, the injury to Cogswell has caused an entirely new dynamic in the batting order, moving Mike Papi to leadoff in Cogswell’s place, with a trickledown effect throughout the order.
When O’Connor realized that Cogswell, who started 47 games at short and was UVa’s leadoff man (he was batting .346 and ranked among the ACC leaders in several categories) would be unavailable for at least two weeks, he decided to give Howard a shot, which required moving reserve Kenny Towns from the bench to starting at Howard’s third base spot.
“I told Nick the other day that it’s a lot of people’s dream to play shortstop at the University of Virginia,” O’Connor said after watching the seventh-ranked Cavaliers improve to 41-8 (19-7 ACC). “He will do a nice job. The more experience he has out there, the more comfortable he will get.”
No snafus for Howard in Friday night’s come-from-behind win over the Blue Devils (UVa’s 17th such win this season), or in Saturday’s blowout. Towns was charged with an error Friday but his slate was clean yesterday.
Howard started taking reps as soon as Cogswell underwent surgery to repair his injury and it didn’t take long for the former shortstop to feel at home again.
“I felt pretty comfortable going over there after a few ground balls in practice,” Howard said. “Getting the first couple of game reps out of the way helped me settle down. Now, it feels like I’m back to normal.”
When he trotted out to short to open up Friday night’s game, though, there was a lot of adrenaline pumping throughout the infielder’s body.
“I just wanted to get that first ground ball out of the way,” Howard chuckled. “Once that happened, it calmed me down. You can feel as comfortable as you want in practice, but until you get that first ground ball with somebody running down the line, that’s when it really starts to set in. Once you get that first runner under your belt, you feel your confidence growing.”
Making a switch
Switching from third to short can be a big deal. As O’Connor aptly pointed out, there’s a timing adjustment that must be made because the shortstop plays deeper in the infield than third base and thusly, the shortstop has to become quicker at getting rid of the baseball, judging the speed of the baserunner, covering the bag at second. So, there’s more responsibility if nothing else.
“It’s definitely an honor to play shortstop for us,” Howard said. “Cogswell has done a great job so far this year and it’s unfortunate what happened to him (Cogswell was injured in practice Saturday a week ago, handling a ground ball). Knowing that they have confidence in moving me to his spot gives me confidence going out there.”
It was equally important to Howard that his teammates showed that same amount of confidence in his ability to make plays as well, easing the pressure, freeing his mind to not think so much but rather just play.
O’Connor always figured that if Virginia got into a pinch at short, he could rely on sliding Howard over. The kid has good range and the background, so confidence was the biggest part of the deal. With that out of the way, the skipper figures his infield is good to go.
Cogswell will be reevaluated prior to the ACC Tournament (May 22-26), but until then, O’Connor is sticking with his play.
The task at hand
Today, Howard isn’t thinking about it. He’s focused solely on shutting down the Blue Devils.
“I struggled last time out at Virginia Tech (he was roughed up for seven runs and took the loss), but we had last week off (for exams), so I’m refreshed and want to finish the season strong,” Howard said. “Leaving [Saturday’s game] early gives me a little more rest so I can be 100 percent out there in going for the sweep. It’s my job to go out there and set the tone.”
As far as UVa’s reshuffled batting order, O’Connor and associate head coach Kevin McMullan trust their judgment on putting the right pieces in the proper places.
“Hopefully it works,” O’Connor smiled. “Only time will tell.”
So far, so good.