Young pitchers power early success

Virginia takes back to back games against St. Peter's 9-1, William & Mary 11-2 as Oest, Howard dominate in first career starts


Virginia’s pitching staff came into the season surrounded by questions. Already, many of those questions have been answered in the affirmative.

In their first action at Davenport Field after a weekend road trip to open the season, the Cavaliers continued to impress, topping St. Peter’s 9-1 Monday before overpowering rival William & Mary in an 11-2 rout Tuesday.

After Sunday’s game against East Carolina was canceled due to weather, the Cavaliers were able to schedule a home game against St. Peter’s, whose entire weekend series against Longwood was also wiped out. For the unexpected home opener, Virginia (4-0, 0-0 ACC) turned to freshman pitcher Trey Oest to start in his collegiate debut. Oest became the second freshman to start for the Cavaliers already this season, and he responded with a performance beyond his years, showing strong command on the mound during six stellar innings of work.

“I felt really well prepared, with all the things [pitching coach Karl Kuhn] puts us through,” Oest said. “It wasn’t nerves. It was more excitement.”

Oest cruised through the first four innings of the game, retiring all 12 batters he faced. It took St. Peter’s (0-1, 0-0 MAAC) until the top of the fifth to get a base runner, when senior leadoff hitter Chris Grimes reached on a walk to break up the perfect game. Oest proceeded to retire the next three batters to finish five innings with a no-hitter. The weight of a possible no-hitter can be a lot for any pitcher to handle, no less one making his first career start, but Oest proved capable of not letting the pressure rattle him.

“It crosses your mind, but you don’t focus on it,” Oest said. “You just keep doing exactly what you’re doing the whole game, and that’s what I tried to do.”

The Peacocks finally picked up a hit in the top of the sixth inning, but Oest kept them off the board for a sixth and final frame before giving way to the bullpen. Freshman relievers Cameron Tekker and David Rosenberger continued to stymie St. Peter’s the rest of the way, giving up just one run in the top of the seventh inning. The game stayed close for a while, with Virginia holding a 3-1 lead through six, but like clockwork, the Virginia offense exploded late in the game.

Senior second baseman Reed Gragnani drove home two on a triple in the seventh before scoring himself, and the Cavaliers added three more runs in the bottom of the seventh. It continued the Cavaliers’ late-inning successes, with 23 of the team’s 36 runs in their first three games coming in the last three frames.

“I don’t want to say we’re laid back, but since it’s the beginning of the year, we’re getting used to pitching, and the back half of the game we’re really just turning it on,” said sophomore center fielder Brandon Downes, who added a home run in the fifth inning.

After the big win Monday, the Cavaliers had a quick turnaround before what was originally supposed to be their home opener, a Tuesday matchup against in-state rival William & Mary. As has been the case all season, coach Brian O’Connor turned once again to an inexperienced starting pitcher. This time it was sophomore Nick Howard, who was slated to make his season debut in the cancelled Sunday game against ECU.

After pitching exclusively out of the pen last season, Howard continued the string of strong performances from the young staff in his own starting debut on the mound, going six scoreless innings against the Tribe (1-3, 0-0 CAA) while giving up just five hits and striking out two. The righty needed just 60 pitches to mow through the William & Mary lineup, which tried to be aggressive early in the count.

“Obviously he’s got talent,” O’Connor said. “He did a good job for us out of the bullpen [last season], and now we’re looking at him as a starter. He made good pitches, and I thought he showed great poise out there in his first college start.”

Behind Howard, Virginia dazzled on offense again, breaking through for eight combined runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. Sophomore Kenny Towns went deep in the fifth, giving the third baseman his third home run in the young season. After an unforgettable opening day performance with two grand slams, Towns also has a team-best 10 RBIs.

“The thing that I really like about Kenny is that he’s who we’re about,” O’Connor said. “He plays really hard. He’s engaged every day to what we do. You do that, and the game rewards you, and it’s rewarding him right now.”

The game was halted for more than an hour by a rain delay, but after the skies cleared freshman Nathan Kirby relieved Howard with two scoreless innings and a strong bounceback from a tough weekend at ECU that saw him give up 5 runs in 1.1 innings. Virginia added three more runs in the late innings, and freshman Josh Sborz closed out the game, giving up two runs in the bottom of the ninth, but easily holding on for the 11-2 win.

“Those hits aren’t going to drop all the time,” O’Connor said. “There’s going to be a 2-1, 3-2, 4-3 ballgame in the very near future for us at some point. It still comes back to where you need to play good defense, and you’ve got to get that strong pitching. You love days like this … but we’ve got to continue to focus on the pitching and defense.”

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