Questions surround UVA ace Nathan Kirby: Examining one way this could play out

nathan kirbyParsing words here, but UVA baseball coach Brian O’Connor made it clear in talking with reporters this week that ace All-America lefty Nathan Kirby will not start Friday or Saturday when the Cavs take the field in the NCAA Tournament regionals this weekend.

OK, so Kirby, who has been out since April 18 with a strained lat, won’t start. Does that mean Kirby and his mid-90s fastball and wicked slider won’t be available in relief?

Kirby as a short reliever actually seems to make the most sense in terms of his possible usage coming back from a six-week layoff. Remember how O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn brought Artie Lewicki back in 2014, emphasis on slowly, to get Lewicki ready to be a contributor. The plan took several weeks to get Lewicki back to where he could go long stints, six, seven innings or more, and by tourney time, Lewicki was the best pitcher on the UVA staff.

Virginia doesn’t have weeks to get Kirby innings needed to build his in-game stamina like what was done last year with Lewicki, who was able to get some mid-week starts before moving to the weekends by mid-May, then settling into a spot-starter/long-reliever role in the postseason.

If Kirby is going to be of any value to UVA the rest of the way, it’s going to be an inning here, an inning there.

So let’s think that one through. If you know you have Kirby for an inning Friday night, he’s the closer; his stuff, even after weeks of recovering and throwing on the side only, is still the best of anybody on the staff. That frees up Josh Sborz to maybe get the start Friday against USC, and it makes sense to go that route, since Sborz is your hottest pitcher right now, if only judging from his one-hit complete game against Georgia Tech last week in the ACC Tournament.

And this isn’t slighting Connor Jones in saying that. Save Jones for Saturday, assuming a win, against UC-Santa Barbara, and play the ace in the hole against the top seed. You also, in that scenario, have Brandon Waddell ready to go on Sunday. Again, assume the win Saturday, and you have your Sunday starter going on Sunday against somebody else’s #4, or their first of two Johnny Allstaff days.

This is obviously best-case scenario, but it’s the blueprint for how UVA can emerge from Lake Elsinore.

Kirby as the closer gives Virginia two dominant starters on Friday and Saturday and a reliable innings-eater on Sunday. Play out that same rotation in the Super Regionals, and the ‘Hoos can make it back to Omaha for the fourth time in seven years.

– Column by Chris Graham