Over the years, I’ve made a habit of reading the Washington Post’s sports page while eating breakfast — nearly always Quaker Oatmeal Squares and toast. And lately, there’s been more and more baseball articles, because once again, it’s that time of year. Thank goodness, too, given that college hoops is finishing up.
Baseball season always makes me nostalgic — I remember playing in youth leagues, sitting in the stands with my father at Wrigley Field, and our trip to Cooperstown, N.Y. in my high school years. This time around, MLB’s Opening Day has me thinking back just a couple years, to spring 2014, when I reported on the Virginia baseball team.
I’ve never enjoyed covering a team so much, despite — or maybe because of — those weeks when Davenport Field became my second home, schoolwork falling by the wayside. I remember following our Cavaliers from afar once school let out — those guys were still playing for a national championship. And I’ll never forget John Norwood’s blast off Virginia’s Nick Howard in Game 3 of the CWS Finals, which tilted the series — permanently — in Vanderbilt’s favor.
Do you remember that season, too? There was something thrilling about watching the Cavaliers advance so far, though the ending proved sad.
What I want to know now is what has become of those Virginia ballplayers — eight of them were chosen in the 2014 MLB Draft, which took place as Virginia faced Maryland in the Charlottesville Super Regional. What’s happened to each of them, professionally? Who’s still in the minors, and has anyone made it to The Show?
Here’s what I’ve found with regards to each of those drafted, along with a bit about them in that semi-magical season here in Charlottesville, which set the stage for a national title last summer:
1. Nick Howard
Drafted: No. 19 overall by the Cincinnati Reds
Then: Virginia’s lockdown closer racked up 20 saves, 60 strikeouts in 37.2 innings and a 1.91 ERA on the strength of his high-90s fastball and knee-buckling slider. When Howard came in, you always felt like the game was over — in the Cavaliers’ favor.
Now: Howard spent 2015 with the Florida State League’s Daytona Tortugas. He struggled with command, posting 50 walks against 31 strikeouts, but converted two of three save opportunities.
2. Derek Fisher
Drafted: No. 37 overall by the Houston Astros
Then: Fisher was expected to help anchor the Virginia offense in 2014, but a broken hamate bone kept him out of the lineup for 25 games. Still, Virginia’s left fielder returned in mid-April against North Carolina and ended the season with 29 RBI.
Now: The second Cavalier off the board in the 2014 draft, Fisher smacked 22 home runs in his first full minor league season. He finished up 2015 with a 39-game stint for the Quad City River Bandits — side note: who doesn’t love minor league team names? — batting a healthy .305.
3. Mike Papi
Drafted: No. 38 overall by the Cleveland Indians
Then: Papi provided the offense for a Cavaliers team built around pitching and defense, hitting over .300 while pacing his team with 11 home runs and 56 RBI. He reached base at a .451 clip.
Now: The Tunkhannock, Pa. native suited up for the Class A Lynchburg Hillcats last season. He hit below .240 but drew 81 walks in 127 games to finish with a .362 OBP.
4. Branden Cogswell
Drafted: No. 222 overall by the Oakland Athletics
Then: Cogswell moved from shortstop to second base before the season, making room for smooth-fielding freshman Daniel Pinero. He started 68 of Virginia’s 69 games, led coach Brian O’Connor’s squad with 78 hits and made just three errors all year.
Now: The middle infielder hit .235 in 118 games for the California League’s Stockton Ports last year, also stealing six bases in eight attempts.
5. Brandon Downes
Drafted: No. 213 overall by the Kansas City Royals
Then: Virginia’s center fielder endured a protracted slump in 2014, but still managed to crank out seven round-trippers after thumping 10 — to go with 59 RBI — the season before. He found his swing against Vanderbilt with a national championship on the line, posting five hits in three games.
Now: Downes swung the bat like a slugger for the Lexington Legends last year, collecting 14 homers, 29 doubles and a whopping 115 strikeouts. He also showed off his speed with 19 thefts in 106 games.
6. Artie Lewicki
Drafted: No. 250 overall by the Detroit Tigers
Then: Like Fisher, Lewicki missed time because of injury, and like Fisher, he made his presence felt when healthy. The senior threw as a starter and out of the bullpen, finishing the season with an 8-1 record and a 1.31 ERA.
Now: Lewicki started 15 games for the West Michigan Whitecaps in 2015. He picked up three wins against four losses and fanned 77 batters in 79.1 innings.
7. Whit Mayberry
Drafted: No. 640 overall by Detroit
Then: The Cavaliers’ soft-spoken setup man punched up a 1.60 ERA in 30 appearances out of the Virginia bullpen. He served as a sturdy bridge to Howard all season long — and he later talked to me, for a story, about his first few months in the minors. It was hard not to like Mayberry.
Now: Mayberry tossed 63 innings in 2015, which he spent with the Erie SeaWolves and the Lakeland Flying Tigers. In 15 games with Lakeland, Mayberry posted a 1.01 ERA and did not allow a home run.
8. Nate Irving
Drafted: No. 1,020 overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks
Then: Irving started 48 games behind the plate for a Virginia team that posted a truly stingy 2.23 ERA. At the dish, he tallied five doubles and 18 RBI.
Now: Virginia’s final 2014 MLB Draft pick has played for the Class A Hillsboro Hops each of the past two seasons. Last year, he batted .276 in 24 games, improving on his .190 showing in 2014.