When Virginia closer Nick Howard takes the mound this weekend and rears back to fire another fastball, center fielder Brandon Downes will instinctively look back at Davenport Field’s right-center field radar gun for confirmation.
Catcher Nate Irving will brace himself behind the plate, the bruises of the regular season sufficient proof of what’s coming.
“A few times I left the game and I couldn’t feel my left hand,” Irving said this week.
Howard, though, will mostly shrug. He doesn’t recall the exact moment when the fastball that rarely reached 95 mph suddenly jumped to 98 mph. He only heard about it from awestruck teammates, who could no longer keep up in the batter’s box.
“Still, I don’t really believe it’s happening,” Howard said.
This, though, is what will make his prospects in Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft, which begins Thursday, even more remarkable. There’s a good chance Howard, a former All-Met from St. John’s, will be a first-round pick after establishing himself as one of the nation’s top closers this year, setting an ACC and Virginia record with 19 saves heading into this weekend’s super regional against Maryland. The winner of the best-of-three series will advance to the College World Series in Omaha.
But his status as a surefire prospect only materialized in the past year. During the 2013 college season, Howard was a versatile two-way player who hit .323 manning third base and shortstop and posted a 6-4 record and a 3.38 ERA as Virginia’s No. 3 starter.
That helped him earn a spot with the Hardwick Mariners in the prestigious Cape Cod summer league, but his statistics there were modest. In six starts, the Olney native had a 4.26 ERA and hit .276 in 76 at-bats. Howard, though, views this as a turning point.
“Playing against the high level of competition and seeing myself succeed gave me a lot of confidence coming into this season,” he said.
Then came a mid-winter meeting with Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn. The Cavaliers were loaded with returning talent — Howard is one of seven Virginia players rated among Baseball America’s top 355 draft prospects this year — but lacked a dominating closer after the departure of pitcher Kyle Crockett to the Cleveland Indians’ minor league system. They wanted to groom Howard for the role.
Howard immediately embraced the change. He grew facial hair and became more animated on the mound, hopeful it would add an intimidation factor. Mindful that he would need to throw only one inning per appearance, Howard fired his fastball with abandon and his teammates began staring at the radar gun during practice. Downes can be seen doing it now in almost every home game.
Howard struggles to explain how he discovered this new velocity, that it’s as much about believing in himself as it is strength. But there’s no arguing the results, especially during a season in which Virginia (47-13) played 21 games decided by one run or in extra innings. He has allowed just seven earned runs this season to go along with 50 strikeouts in 291 / 3 innings of work.
Howard also throws a slider and curveball from his days as a starter, but “that fastball is always in the back of your mind,” North Carolina Coach Mike Fox said during the ACC tournament.
O’Connor has even stopped playing Howard in the field in hopes of saving him for the ninth inning, even though he went 4 for 4 against Maryland ace Jake Stinnett in the Cavaliers’ 7-6 ACC tournament loss to the Terrapins. Stinnett, another potential first-round pick Thursday, is scheduled to pitch Saturday when Virginia and Maryland (39-21) begin their series in Charlottesville.
“I know the value of that guy at the end of the game,” O’Connor said of Howard.
Howard’s roommate, Virginia left fielder Derek Fisher, could join him as a first-round selection Thursday. A sixth-round draft pick out of high school, Fisher is batting .288 this season despite playing with a broken hamate bone in his hand. First baseman Mike Papi is also rated among Baseball America’s top 50 prospects, and Downes, Irving, second baseman Branden Cogswell and pitcher Artie Lewicki should be drafted at some point as well.
Local pitchers JB Bukauskas (Stone Bridge) and Nick Wells (Battlefield), catcher Justin Morris (DeMatha) and Virginia Tech catcher Mark Zagunis are also candidates to be taken during the 40 rounds of the draft, which runs through Saturday.