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Not on Nathan Kirby: UVA lefty just didn’t have it

college world seriesWhat UVA ace Nathan Kirby endured Monday night in Game 1 of the 2014 College World Series was Rick Ankiel-like, Steve Blass-like.

It was that bad. So bad that you hope the kid has a short memory, that whatever summer league team he pitches for, probably up in the Cape, he goes out and tears it up, strikes out 20, throws a no-hitter, something like that.

Otherwise … well, forget otherwise.

Even when Kirby was rolling Monday night, retiring the first seven Vanderbilt hitters that he faced, the appearances were deceiving. He had gone to two 3-0 counts on hitters in the second, and had another 2-0 count in the first, and had been bailed out by aggressive swings on pitches by Commodore hitters who had the count in their favor. Through two, he had thrown 26 pitches, 15 of them strikes, not bad, given the results, but he wasn’t exactly sharp, either.

Kirby struck out Chris Harvey on three pitches to begin the third, and then it began. He walked #8 hitter Jason Delay on four pitches, then fell behind nine-hole hitter Tyler Campbell 2-0. Campbell drove the 2-0 fastball to the wall in left for a double, and at that moment, Kirby lost confidence in his stuff.

Pitching coach Karl Kuhn preaches pitching to contact, but Kirby clearly was pitching to anything but contact after the Campbell double. Head coach Brian O’Connor would later point to mechanical issues in Kirby’s delivery as the primary cause of what was to happen next – four more walks, five total in the inning, three with the bases loaded, opening the door to an improbable nine-run Vanderbilt third.

But the mechanical was rooted in the psychological, on the part of Kirby and his coaches. Only eight of his next 26 pitches were strikes. It was excruciating to watch; it wasn’t like he was just missing, he was missing badly. It was so bad that the four-pitch walk to Zander Wiel, the second walk in the sequence of three back-to-back-to-back walks with the bases loaded, should have been the night for Kirby, and would have been on any other night, with any other pitcher on the mound, but it had all happened so quickly that O’Connor and Kuhn hadn’t had time to get Whit Mayberry loose in the bullpen.

You could almost sense them expecting Kirby to battle out of it and settle down to give them more innings.

Mayberry and Austin Young did eventually settle things down, keeping Vanderbilt off the board the rest of the way, giving the offense time to turn a 9-2 deficit into something more interesting.

You can’t help but feel that had O’Connor been able to pull the trigger on lifting Kirby, Game 1 was Virginia’s to lose, even with having to go to the pen much earlier than expected. UVA had 15 hits in the game, got clutch hits all night, scoring seven runs with two outs, and its pitchers put up eight zeroes on the scoreboard.

It would have bruised Kirby’s ego to get the hook after walking a couple of guys and leaving down 3-2. Now you have to hope that he didn’t bruise something else upstairs, that he comes back next year and is his usual dominant self.

Forget otherwise.

– Column by Chris Graham

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