Friday, June 26, 2015

kirby's dream land

It's hard to capture in words what just happened, for the simple reason that it's so easy to see what just happened.  It's not just a national championship.  It never is, I suppose.  By definition, national championships are stories to tell.

It's just, it's hard to think of a time the stories flowed so freely and easily.  There was the rematch.  The hometown boy and his statue.  The program barely a decade from being cut.  The tribute to a fallen police officer.  The ACC's championship drought.  The injuries.  The depth and lack thereof.  The multitude of clutch hits, pitches, and performances.  No, a national championship really is never just a collection of wins, but this one, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a storyline.  This thing means so many different things, it'd take an extra volume or two to capture it all.

I say we start with the last two innings, and I have the only vote.  Something extraordinary had just happened, which really doesn't narrow it down but still.  Brandon Waddell - Big Game Brandon, a moniker not even a month old - told Karl Kuhn he was done.  Even though UVA's pitchers are instructed to do that if they feel the need, it has to go against every competitive fiber in a player's body.  With Waddell understandably out of gas, Nathan Kirby took the hill.

Let's go back a bit.  As a UVA commit out of high school, Kirby was already considered nigh-unsignable by MLB clubs, but he famously went the extra mile by not even submitting to the MLB drug testing and medical requirements, making himself ineligible for selection.  A very rare step.  That recruiting class had some outstanding pitchers, but Kirby was the headliner.

And then he stunk.  A lot.  Expected to compete for a weekend role, Kirby only started two games and pitched mostly in relief.  Badly.  His fastball had less movement than a roadkill skunk.  His breaking stuff didn't get over the plate enough and hitters ignored it, waiting for the nice easy batting practice fastballs.  Waddell started the first game of the season, Josh Sborz immediately became an elite reliever, even Trey Oest - who left after that season - had a larger role.  Kirby's sophomore season was a night-and-day difference.  He was every bit the ace he was supposed to be.  Dominant.  Pitched great in the postseason, too - an eight-inning, one-hit, nine-K gem against Arkansas; a seven-inning, one-hit effort against Ole Miss.

It all came crashing down against Vanderbilt, though, in one absolute nuclear disaster of a third inning in which he walked five and ultimately got charged with eight runs.  And because of how things go, that was the lasting memory, even into a junior season that saw his ace self return, right up until the lat injury.

He wasn't even that good upon his return.  Rusty.  It was plain to see his command was less than sparkling.  He ended up tagged with the loss, though the game wasn't really over until well past his removal.  Getting the ball a few days later, he was walking to a mound where he'd never pitched well, to face hitters who had destroyed him when they saw him last.  And all he was being asked to do was close out a national championship.

Five strikeouts and a grounder later, everyone forgot all of that.  And if you ask me, that's the power of a trophy.  Kirby's story, to me, is as good as any in the tournament, but it didn't get a whole lot of attention, because the instant it became a story, UVA won, you know, a frickin' national championship.  But Nathan Kirby is too good of a pitcher and there was no way in hell he deserved to be remembered for the downsides of his career.


I did say it'd take an extra volume or two.  Of the various teams I consider myself invested in, pro and college, I've watched them win, by my count, anywhere from 9 to 12 national titles, depending on how early in my life you let me start counting.  This one is either my first or second favorite; it's not fair to judge while I'm still riding high, but it's at least up there.  So, yeah, this is a weekend's worth of stuff right here.  Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

What's really exciting is that ... this train shouldn't miss a beat. Now, that doesn't mean we'll get back to Omaha each year, but we are in the reload, not rebuild, phase year in and year out. I mean ... this year was more of a rebuild year than anything, if we're honest, due to the high numbers of folks that left and the large number of freshman.

There will be some issues next year that have to be sorted out in the fall, but on paper, the lineup looks tantalizing. Thaiss/Pinero/Smith/Clement/Haseley should form a very nice core to the order. I think LaPrise probably comes back, because a healthy LaPrise probably goes top 6-7 rounds in a draft, but even if he's not, Gerstenmaier, Cody, Lowry, Novak, along with freshman Ryan Karstetter, Doak Dozier, and Jack McCarthy gives us a lot of options to fill 3rd, corner OF, and DH. There was also a blurb about Robbie Coman coming back, although I'm taking a wait and see on that. Either way, the lineup should be a big plus, and defensively, the group looks solid as well. If Pinero can find the defensive consistency he had in the CWS, he'll be a high pick next year. (quite possible that someone from that Gerstenmaier/Cody/Lowry/Novak group could possibly transfer, but it's a wait and see on that).

The issues are obviously moreso on the pitching side. We need guys to step up. Still ... Connor Jones is a fine Friday starter, a potential first rounder in 2016. He needs to get more efficient and get a bit stronger (it was quite evident that Carson Fulmer could carry his stuff deep into games, whereas Jones tired a bit as the pitch count got up), but those are things that can be worked on and he's getting great experience with the Collegiate National Team (along with Thaiss) this summer. Derek Casey was about to join the weekend rotation before getting hurt, so he should slot in on Saturday or Sunday. We'll have a nice mix of guys to pick for a weekend spot and a weekday spot (incoming freshman Evan Sperling seems to be an option). The issue is the pen, although I'm not that pessimistic. I think Alec Bettinger goes to thee closer role where he can power through 1 or 2 innings. He's not going to be Sborz and going through multiple innings, but letting him rear back for 1-2 innings - I think he can be good. Roberts, Doyle, Wilson, Sousa, Rosenberger, Ostbye, Doughty give us arm depth, and I know there's a couple more arms in the incoming class (fully aware there could be a transfer or two in this group as well, although I think I'll be surprised if Roberts/Wilson transfer due to their bloodlines). I think I'm looking to Doyle/Roberts as a starter, with the other in a setup role to Bettinger.

If the pitching sorts itself out, we should have a great chance to be back in Omaha next year. Reloaded ...

Anonymous said...

I completely forgot about Kevin Doherty. No idea where he figures into things, but after all he did this year, I'm sure he'll find a spot. I think his best value is probably as a lefty pen arm. Needs to work on his routes if he wants to stay in the field, but he was such an integral bat for us this year (look past the season numbers, with all our injuries, we needed some help, and he helped more than enough).