Virginia is in the driver's seat entering Friday's win-or-play-again-on-Saturday game against Florida at the College World Series (3 p.m., ESPN2), and that affords the Cavaliers a lot of leeway. They don't have to win today; it would just get them to the championship series a little faster, and without expending the energy to vie for a win on Saturday.
So Virginia is starting Nathan Kirby, a staff ace who hasn't dealt from the mound in a real game since April, against the Gators.
And it sounds to me like Virginia's well aware the gamble could backfire.
"We have two games to play with," Kirby said Thursday. "Hopefully we can get it done tomorrow."
I'm reluctant to read too much into the mentality behind saying "We have two games to play with" to reporters, but it suggests Kirby is at least aware that the fate of the Cavaliers' season doesn't rest on his shoulders.
And Brian Schwartz explains the rationale for starting Kirby in this game quite well at SB Nation's Virginia blog, Streaking the Lawn:
Brian O'Connor's decision was an interesting strategic one, as Connor Jones would have also been available. The upside is that a UVA win allows the team to hold Jones for game 1 of the championship (with Brandon Waddell available in game 2). If there's a game Saturday, Jones would likely be the starter.
Kirby's stamina won't be 100% after his layoff, and he is unlikely to throw 90 pitches (or 6ish innings).
The decision is bold, but I'd argue it's a good one. UVA has two chances to win one game. If a second game is required, both pitchers would be used anyways. But if UVA does win game one, the team would rather save Jones than save Kirby. (And, because of Kirby's pitch limits, he has a better chance of being available again in the next round as well).
The Hoos are an underdog this season, and are playing with house money. If the goal were to make the championship round, Jones would be the obvious starting choice. But to put the team in a better position to win it, O'Connor is making a bit of a gamble.
Kirby's an excellent pitcher when healthy: He was an All-American in 2014, got picked by the Milwaukee Brewers in the second round of the 2015 MLB Draft despite the injury that sidelined him for about six weeks, and has a 2.28 ERA on the year, lower than the 3.86 ERA possessed by Brandon Waddell even after his seven scoreless innings of work against Florida on Monday.
But throwing Kirby on Friday is taking the chance that he's truly healthy on the biggest possible stage ... and conceding that gambling on winning the championship series is more important to Virginia than winning it.
As an objective observer, I'd find that a bit odd, even granting the rationale: Why would a team risk putting itself in a must-win situation on a lottery ticket like Kirby?
As a Florida fan, though, I'm much happier to see Kirby, who I think represents a much larger range of possible outcomes because of his health and his unexpected insertion into the rotation, than the more reliable Jones or Gator-slayer Waddell.
This decision may work out for Virginia: Kirby could, of course, pitch brilliantly, and help the gamble pay off. And it might not work out for Florida, which could still lose even if it roughs up Kirby or chases him from the game.
But I'm happy with a decision made by the coaching staff of the team my team is playing against, and I think that's a decent sign that the decision has some clear drawbacks.