Virginia baseball coach Brian O'Connor doesn't mince words when it comes to his preseason expectations for sophomore Nick Howard.
"I knew coming into this season that Nick Howard would have to be one of the pivotal players on our ball club this year," said O'Connor, the Cavaliers' 10th-year head coach.
Howard began his Virginia baseball career a season ago as a back-up infielder, but ended the year as one of O'Connor's more reliable options out of the Cavalier bullpen.
"They kind of just groomed me as a position player first, and then the pitching came along second," said Howard, who finished his freshman year with 52 at-bats and 19 relief appearances. "I knew going into this year that is was going to be heavy duty, and the coaches got me ready for it."
"I knew after fall ball was over that he had won the third base job," said O'Connor. "And we started him out the year on the No. 3 starting role on Sunday. And he hasn't let got of that, and has just been really consistent for us."
Howard has appeared in 25 games for Virginia this season, including seven as the Cavaliers' starting pitcher. He's scheduled to pitch Monday night's finale of Virginia's three-game weekend series at Wake Forest.
Howard has a 3-2 record on the mound this season. His 2.43 ERA is best among the team's starters, and his 32 strikeouts are second on the staff. At the plate, Howard's .337 average is second among the team's regulars. He's got a pair of homers and 19 RBI, and his eight doubles are tied for the team lead.
"He's certainly embraced the that role he has on this team. I think he looks at it as a challenge," said O'Connor. "He goes out there and plays third base in Game 1 and Game 2 of a series. And then the next day he has to step on the mound and switch gears, and perform for this team."
"He's very even-keeled. He's a very mellow kind of a guy," said sophomore catcher Nate Irving. "I could imagine in being pretty difficult. I mean, he's got that double duty. He's got two different focuses in the same weekend."
"Yeah, I mean, it's two different mindsets, really," said Howard. "I'd be lying to you if I said it wasn't hard, but you adjust to it. It's just baseball, so it's a lot of fun to me."
The roll call of two-way stars at Virginia includes some of the best players to play for O'Connor -- names like Danny Hultzen, Sean Doolittle, and Joe Koshansky. And O'Connor says Howard is not only adding his name to that list, but possibly even out-doing them in one sense.
"When we've done it in the past with players -- Hultzen and Doolittle and Koshansky -- those players would be playing first base or DH'ing," said O'Connor. "Nick's playing the left side of the infield while pitching."
"Seeing all the previous guys come through here, and how successful they've been, gives me a lot of confidence," said Howard. "Knowing that the coaches feel the same in me."
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