Dominant Howard Helps 'Hoos Stay No. 1 in Country

The Virginia baseball team has won a lot of ACC games in Derek Fisher's time in Charlottesville. But the junior outfielder says none were more important that the two wins the Cavaliers brought back from their weekend in Tallahassee.

"It's the biggest series win that we've had since I've been here," Fisher said Monday afternoon at a rainy Davenport Field. "Going in, to play a team like Florida State -- and better yet, in Tallahassee, in their own ballpark. It's probably the hardest place to play in the ACC. And going there my freshman year, got swept my freshman year. So going in there kind of with a chip on our shoulder and be able to come out of there with a series win is pretty big for us."

Fisher's two-run double gave UVa a 5-3 win in 10 innings in Friday night's series opener. Then the Cavaliers bounced back from a 7-0 loss on Saturday to clinch the series with a 4-3 win in Sunday's finale.

The Cavaliers are now ranked No. 1 in the country in every national poll this week, including a third straight week on top of the Baseball America Top 25. This week marks the first time this season that UVa has been the consensus No. 1 team in the country.

Florida State fell to No. 6 in the Baseball America rankings this week, though the Seminoles remain on top of the ACC Atlantic Division standings.

"I mean, that was a playoff atmosphere. The environment that those fans were giving to their team was incredible. They made us earn every out, every run that we got," said UVa junior closer Nick Howard. "Winning the series has definitely given us a lot of confidence going into the next couple of weeks."

Howard was a big part of the Cavaliers' series win. He struck out all seven Seminoles he faced -- including Jose Brizuela with the bases loaded in the eighth inning on Sunday, and UVa with a one-run lead.

With two saves at FSU, Howard now leads the ACC with 15 on the season.

"Obviously Florida State's got a great program. They've got a really great team this year," said UVa coach Brian O'Connor. "But this is what Nick Howard has been doing all year."

Howard (2-0 with a 1.16 ERA on the year) moved into the closer role before the season, and has now positioned himself among the most successful relief pitchers in program history. His 15 saves are already good for third all-time on the UVa single-season list, just three behind Branden Kline (2011) and Kevin Arico (2010), who each matched the ACC record with 18.

Howard's lone blown save came in UVa's 10-inning win against VCU at The Diamond in Richmond last week. He's a perfect 12-for-12 in save opportunities against ACC opponents.

"The thing that he does the best is, he throws strikes," O'Connor explained. "He's around the strike zone, you're going to have to earn it off of him. And he's really determined out there. He's a real competitor, and he wants the ball in his hand at the end of the ballgame."

"The pressure's a lot of fun," Howard said. "I mean, that's part of the role of being a closer. Getting that final out. Everybody's on their feet, and I think it's a real exciting experience."

Howard has also started to let that excitement show on the field, with his animated fist pumps becoming part of his post-save routine. But according to the 6-4 right-hander, that's just part of his new job.

"Being the closer, you see the guys in the major leagues on TV, they have all these crazy personalities. And they're shutting the ninth inning down," he explained. "But I mean, once you experience it, then you really start to enjoy it."

"It's always fun to watch Nick pitch, man," said Fisher. "Especially being his roommate, and knowing him on the other side of the ball. He's such a laid-back, quiet kid that just likes to have fun. And when he goes out there and can do the things that he's been doing for us this year, it's a lot of fun to watch him doing what he's been doing."

"I think we take winning sometimes for granted," said Howard. "So every time that we can get the win, I like to show that emotion and get excited for our team."

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