In the first week of the season, Virginia Tech baseball passed every test with flying colors. The Hokies started the season 4-0 for the first time since 2013.
“We’ve had good starting pitching,” said head coach Pat Mason. “Obviously, that’s going to be the key to anyone’s success if you can consistently get good starting pitching. Packy [Naughton] probably wasn’t himself, but Joey [Sullivan] pitched well. We didn’t get a lot of innings out of Joey, but he pitched well enough to give us a lot more innings than we were able to. That combined with the way we swung the bats pretty good the first four games. I think our mindset is pretty good. We’re playing pretty relaxed and confident. We haven’t really faced any true adversity yet, so it’ll be good to see how we handle and react to that.”
On opening day, it was the Sam Fragale show on the road against USC Upstate. Fragale smashed three home runs in his first three at bats and finished 5-5 from the plate with seven RBIs. Fragale finished the first week with the three home runs and 11 RBIs. His performance earned him ACC Player of the Week with Wake Forest’s Connor Johnstone.
“The start he had, I’d never heard of a start like that,” said Mason. “First three at bats being a home run, and a double and a triple. Then his first at bat on Saturday was an RBI single. We need him to be more consistent. I think he’s in the past been streaky. When things weren’t going great for him I think he did things to get himself out. If he can eliminate those mistakes, and part of that is really just experience and maturity and having that game slow down for you. His goal this year individually is to have more quality at bats and be more relaxed and execute his plan and stick to his plan in the heat of the moment. It will be great for Sam to produce at a high level. Not expecting him to hit three home runs and drive in 11 RBIs every weekend, but we would take it too.”
Naughton got the start on the mound in game one and lasted 4.1 innings, giving up one earned run and striking out six. Nick Anderson picked up the win in relief, tossing 2.2 scoreless innings.
In game two of the series, Kit Scheetz picked up the win after he came out of the bullpen and pitched 3.1 innings of scoreless work. Aaron McGarity finished off the final 1.2 innings for the save to capture the 9-8 victory. Tom Stoffel drove in the go-ahead RBI in the top of the 8th with a bunt single.
Tech completed the sweep of USC Upstate behind a stellar pitching performance from Andrew McDonald. McDonald fired 7.2 innings, giving up two runs and striking out a career-high nine batters. Tom Stoffel and Nick Anderson each had two RBIs to lead the offensive charge in the 8-2 win.
In the home opener against Marshall, it was again the starting pitching that impressed as Connor Coward tossed 6.0 innings of scoreless work, striking out six. Paul Hall Jr., Graham Seitz and Kit Scheetz each pitched one inning to cap off the 7-0 shutout.
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“It’ll be awesome if they [Andrew McDonald and Connor Coward] can continue that,” Mason said. “I said good starting pitching initially in the first question, but our bullpen has been arguably better or statistically better for sure. They bailed us out, especially in Saturday’s game. If those guys can throw one week at a time… If Andrew can throw like he did this past weekend, he can throw like that this weekend and next weekend and so on and so forth, then that will bode well for him. And that would obviously bode well for us. Same with Connor. Wherever anyone ends up we’ll make an adjustment if we need to in terms of rotation or order or who’s pitching when. If Connor pitches like that and we get that kind of production out of him, then that will be great for him. More importantly, or equally as important, it will serve us really well if we get that production from him.”
Newcomer Jack Owens had a solid first week as well. The ECU transfer batted .412 with a double, a triple, and two stolen bases through the first four games. Owens has been a spark plug for the Hokies, playing both second and third base while also batting lead off in the last two games.
“He’s [Owens] a fun kid to coach,” said Mason. “He’s got some skills that are not necessarily unique, but unique to our program. He’s got some speed, a very good glove in the middle of the infield. We’ve asked him to play a little bit of third base. He’s a kid who can kind of create runs on his own. We run into a good guy, a pitcher who is shutting us down, or if we’re just shutting ourselves down because it’s one of those days offensively, Jack’s the kind of guy who can create some offense by not really doing a whole lot other than figuring out a way to get on base. He can wreak some havoc on the bases, steal a base, read a dirt ball, move up to scoring position, maybe steal third. He’s fun though, and he definitely seems to provide a little bit of energy which I think has been pretty good. I think our guys are kind of drawn to the way he plays as well. It’ll be good if we can keep that going.”
It’s been smooth sailing so far for the Hokies, but things will likely get more challenging as they travel to the West Coast for a four game series over the weekend with Nevada before traveling back home for a matchup with Radford on Tuesday. The Wolfpack are 1-3 on the young season, but this will be their first game at home.
“We’ll see how well we prepared them to face adversity,” Mason said. “That’s something we talked about since they came back to campus, something we’ve tried to instill in all of our practices and our talks and preparations. It’ll be a true test. Obviously there will be a flight, some change in the time zone. Some weather, although I’m not really worried about the weather. That’s sort of something we’re accustomed to. It’ll be a combination of a lot of different things. We might have to shift some games around because of the weather. We’re just going to have to focus on the things we can control. We’ll see if we’re mentally capable of staying in the moment, focusing on the things that we can control, and if we do that I think we’ll have a good trip. If we don’t we’ll come back and try to get better.”
Adversity has been one of the big words in the program following a disappointing 2016 season. The Hokies have started out this year with a bang and responded to the adversity from last year. In fact, Mason has made a dedicated effort to try to rattle his players and put them in uncomfortable situations to prepare for the moment.
“We’ve been trying to throw a lot of different things at them whether it’s a team or individually,” said Mason. “We’re just trying to rattle them at certain days and times. Like not telling construction guys to shut down during practice. I want those guys to bang and have the jackhammer going. Things like that, so they can try to block that stuff out. Just stay in the moment I think is the biggest thing. Sometimes on road trips I think we’ve struggled to do that, but I thought we did a good job this past weekend.”
We saw a little of what this Tech team could be after the 4-0 start, but we’ll certainly learn a lot more about the Hokies following this upcoming road trip.