Jeff White, virginiasports.com – New York City native Nate Irving grew up in a home filled with music, and he sang in an a cappella group and played trumpet in high school.
Given his parents’ occupations, that wasn’t surprising. His mother teaches music at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, and his father is a music professor at Southern Connecticut State University. Irving’s passion, though, was baseball, and his parents did not try to steer him from the diamond to the stage.
“They never really pushed me to do anything in particular,” recalled Irving, who lived in Manhattan until middle school, when his family moved to Yonkers, N.Y. “They really kind of let me grow up and be who I wanted to be, and I just kind of latched on to the whole baseball thing, and they were extremely supportive of me and let me push myself in whatever way I wanted to go.”
Baseball led him to the University of Virginia, where the 6-0, 220-pound sophomore is a two-year starter at catcher for one of the nation’s premier programs.
No. 6 seed UVa is one of 16 teams left in this year’s NCAA tournament, which resumes this weekend. Virginia (50-10) hosts Mississippi State (46-18) in a best-of-three super regional that starts Saturday afternoon at sold-out Davenport Field. The winner advances to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
The Cavaliers, who made it to Omaha in 2009 and again in ’11, exited the NCAA tournament early last season, losing two of three games in the Charlottesville regional.
“Last year I think a bunch of us first-year guys who came in, we were very, very aware of what the standards and what the expectations were, but I think sometimes we didn’t really know the magnitude of it,” Irving said. “We just tried to kind of go out there and play, and unfortunately it didn’t work out for us last year.”
The Wahoos are a more formidable team this season, largely because of the contributions of a exceptional second-year class that includes Irving, Nick Howard, Mike Papi, Branden Cogswell, Brandon Downes, Derek Fisher and Kenny Towns.
Irving plays a pivotal role.
“He’s like the point guard of our team,” Howard said. “He makes everybody better out there. He knows where everybody needs to be.”
Irving no longer sings as much as he once did, but he still makes his voice heard on Grounds and in the clubhouse. An introvert, Nathaniel Benjamin Irving is not.
“He loves to talk,” UVa coach Brian O’Connor said Monday, a few yards from a dugout in which Irving was being interviewed at Davenport Field.
“He’s high-energy, and what a great position to have that kind of personality, really. He’s a leader. He likes to take charge. He’s an aggressive kid, and that’s why he’s behind the plate for us.”
This is O’Connor’s 10th season at Virginia. Until 2012, no freshman had locked down the starting catcher’s job during O’Connor’s tenure. Irving changed that.
He started 49 games last season and hit .279, with 35 RBI, to help the `Hoos advance to the NCAA tournament for the ninth straight year. His personality notwithstanding, as a freshman Irving would occasionally find himself deferring to his elders on the team, even when he knew he should have been more assertive.
“I think there were some times that I felt a little timid, definitely,” Irving said. “I definitely wasn’t scared, but I was a little shy. With [veteran pitchers] likeBranden Kline and Justin Thompson and Shane Halley, guys who had been here, been to College World Series, guys who I had seen on TV, guys who I looked up to, I definitely did not want to [overstep bounds].”
And this season?
“I definitely feel more comfortable,” Irving said. “I feel this year I’m more in command of everything. I have a better idea of what’s going on, and that’s kind of translated to how I handle the pitching staff and my approach at the plate.”
Howard, Virginia’s Sunday starter for most of the regular season, praised Irving’s ability to “keep our pitchers calm and poised out there. His presence definitely allows the pitchers to go out there and just trust the process and know that he’s going to pull them through that situation.”
Irving “did a great job last year,” O’Connor said. “He caught 95 percent of our innings as a true freshman last year. But he is a lot better as a catcher. The game has slowed down for him quite a bit. He does an unbelievable job of handling that pitching staff. Knows when to go out to the mound and save a visit from a coach, understands what we’re trying to do to get hitters out and what each individual pitcher needs to do.”
Of his trips to the mound, Irving said, “I definitely learned last year when are some good times, when are not and who to do it with, what you need to say, that kind of stuff. I try to spend as much time with our pitching staff as I can to try to get to know them as players and people.”
Irving is still seeking his first collegiate home run, but as UVa’s 9-hole hitter he’s anything but an easy out. At a time of the season when many players’ batting averages are dropping, Irving’s is rising.
Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, he was hitting .257. But then Irving went 6 for 12 in Virginia’s series win over North Carolina, 3 for 9 in the ACC tournament and 4-10 in the NCAA tournament’s Charlottesville regional. His average is up to .286, and his 17 strikeouts are the fewest of any UVa starter.
“He has gotten better and better throughout the year from an offensive standpoint,” O’Connor said. “His swing is so compact. He’s tough. He’s aggressive. He gets above the ball when he hits. He’s rarely underneath the ball, so he’s going to put pressure on the [opposing] team with line drives and groundballs.
“And the kid’s a winner. He’s a performer. To do what he did last year for us in that position says what this kid is made of, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s having a lot of success with the ball down here this stretch run.”
As his teammates don’t hesitate to remind him, Irving’s batting average easily could be higher.
“The whole joke in the clubhouse is that I may lead the NCAA in balls hit right at people, line drives hit right at people,” Irving said.
He smiled. “That’s the game. The only time I’ve really gotten myself into some trouble is when I’ve done that and then tried to do a little too much.”
Irving began playing organized baseball at 6 in the West Side Little League, based in Manhattan’s Riverside Park. When he was older, he joined the Kingsbridge Little League, which played its game at a community center “literally smack dab in the middle of the Bronx, right by the train station,” Irving said.
The league “was full of a bunch of Dominican, Puerto Rican and Venezuelan kids who loved the game,” Irving said, “and I think that kind of helped push me and spark my passion for the game as well.”
Initially he played mostly first base and third base when he wasn’t pitching. “And then slowly but surely I began catching a lot,” Irving said, “and I liked the position, so I started to do it more and more. When you’re in little league, not too many kids want to catch. I kind of took that as my thing and ran with it.”
At Riverdale Country School, Irving was called up the varsity midway through the 2007 season — as an eighth-grader. He went on to make the all-conference first team five times and could have continued his baseball career at numerous schools, including Vanderbilt, Louisville, Dartmouth and Wake Forest. He chose UVa, and for that his coach gives thanks every time Irving sets up behind the plate.
“He’s pretty special back there,” O’Connor said.
HOT TICKET: UVa announced Wednesday that this weekend’s super regional at 4,956-seat Davenport Field has sold out.
Tickets for the NCAA super regionals that Virginia hosted in 2010 and ’11 also sold out before those series began.
UVa and Mississippi State are scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday and, if necessary, 4 p.m. Monday. Game 1 can be seen on ESPN2 and Game 2 on ESPNU. If there’s a Game 3, ESPN2 will broadcast it.