March 25, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- When the calendar flipped to 2014 and preseason practice began for the UVa baseball team, Nick Howard found himself cast in a new role, one that might have intimidated some players.
To Howard fell the job of replacing the pitcher whom Virginia coach Brian O'Connor last month called "hands down the best closer that we've had here in 10 years, no question."
Pressure? What pressure?
Left-hander Kyle Crockett, now a second-year player in the Cleveland Indians' organization, was an All-American for Virginia in 2013 and ranks among the program's all-time greats. But Howard, a 6-4, 215-pound junior right-hander, has made a seamless transition from weekend starter to closer.
"I think he's done fantastic," O'Connor said. "He's been very, very consistent. There have been times he's had to go on back-to-back days, which he's done very well. He's got great stuff."
Howard, the reigning ACC player of the week, showed off that stuff again Monday night in the deciding game of UVa's series with Miami. In the bottom of the ninth, he retired the Hurricanes in order to secure the third-ranked Cavaliers' 5-3 victory in Coral Gables, Fla.
Heading into Virginia's game against Longwood at Davenport Field -- the teams are scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. Wednesday -- Howard has made 11 appearances on the mound. He's 1-0 with a 2.19 earned-run average and six saves. In 12.1 innings, he's struck out 21 batters and walked only three. Opponents are hitting .178 against him.
As a closer, Howard said, "you get to impact more games, where as a starter you're only pitching once a week. That's something I've enjoyed, trying to affect more games."
If pitching were Howard's only responsibility, he'd be one of the most valuable players on a team that leads the ACC's Coastal Division. But he's also an accomplished hitter who's batting .339 this season. In his final at-bat Monday night, he stroked a two-run single in the top of the ninth to put the Wahoos ahead 5-3.
There is little Howard cannot do on the diamond. In addition to closing, Howard has been used this season as a designated hitter and, since Derek Fisher broke a bone his right wrist, at first base.
Howard, whose teammates like to note his resemblance to NBA star Blake Griffin, has long been known for his versatility. Since graduating from St. John's College High School in Washington, D.C., and enrolling at UVa, he's been a starting pitcher, middle reliever, closer, third baseman, shortstop and first baseman. As a freshman, Howard even played right field in one game.
"Growing up, I always paid attention to what other positions were doing during practice and watching games on TV," Howard said. "So I think that's definitely helped me along the way. Again, I just like affecting the games as much as I can, no matter where I play."
Hard as it now may be to believe, UVa's coaches did not recruit Howard with the intention of using him as a pitcher, O'Connor said. They projected him as a full-time third baseman.
"We didn't really have an idea he could play shortstop or bounce to the mound," O'Connor said. "What happened was, we knew he had a good arm, and the fall of his freshman year we put him on the mound and saw he had something.
"It's worked the other way at times. It's amazing what you can discover. This is why I believe with kids out of high school, you shouldn't pigeonhole them and say, `This is what you are.' If you recruit good athletes, the game ends up telling you what they are."
As a freshman in 2012, Howard played in 26 games, with 11 starts (10 at DH, one at third base), and hit .346. Out of the bullpen, he made 19 appearances that season and had a 3-0 record, with a 2.81 ERA.
For most of his sophomore season, Howard was the Cavaliers' Sunday starter. He finished the year with a 6-4 record and a 3.38 ERA. When he wasn't pitching, Howard started at third base and, after Branden Cogswell suffered a season-ending injury, at shortstop. Howard hit .323 last season, with three home runs and 38 RBI, and was named to the All-ACC first team as a utility player.
In last year's ACC tournament, Howard showed a glimpse of his potential as a closer, holding Florida State scoreless in the 12th inning to earn the victory in Durham, N.C.
O'Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn considered several options in their search for Crockett's replacement as the No. 1 closer. Howard stood out not only for his formidable fastball, but because of his playing résumé.
"Being a position player, being on the field every day, he knows what it takes to be ready every day," O'Connor said, "and that's a quality that a closer needs, because you can potentially impact every game that your team plays."
O'Connor speaks from experience. He was a closer for two seasons at Creighton before becoming a starter.
"I loved closing the most, because I loved coming to the ballpark every day knowing that I could impact whether our team won or lost that game," O'Connor said. "So there's a certain quality that a closer has to have. They have to want to have that kind of impact. But they also have to be resilient. They have to be able to put that bad one behind them and be ready to go the next day. And Nick Howard's had experience with that. You go 0 for 3, and you gotta be ready to deliver your fourth at-bat."
Howard was a starting pitcher last summer for the Harwich Mariners in the prestigious Cape Cod League. When he returned to UVa, he didn't pitch during fall ball, which rested his arm and allowed him to sharpen his skills at first base.
"After winter break, I kind of got the idea that I was going to be groomed to be the closer, so I could start getting ready for that," said Howard, a history major from Olney, Md.
On a visit back to Charlottesville this year, Crockett talked to Howard about closing.
"He just said to make the most of all your opportunities," Howard recalled, "and he said once you finally get that last out, it's a pretty exciting feeling, and you always want to keep getting to that point."
Out of necessity, Howard's mentality on the mound has changed. A pitching lapse in the ninth inning, Howard knows, is usually more costly than one in the first.
"You just have to try to be perfect with every pitch that you throw," Howard said. "It seems unrealistic, but I think that's why the job is so much fun, that there's so much pressure on you to get that last out and close the game for your team."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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