After beginning the season playing their first 22 games away from the friendly confines of Tech Softball Park, the Hokies came home one month ago with an impressive 18-4 record and the #19 spot in the ESPN/USA Softball rankings.
Testing themselves against some of the best softball teams in the country, the Hokies had recorded wins versus #9 UCLA, #14 Michigan, and #19 Arizona and there was even talk on the message boards about the possibility of the Hokies hosting regional play in the NCAA.
My, oh my, how things can change in 30 days.
Since then, the Hokies have struggled, going 9-11, including losing their last 6 games at home. They hold a 6-8 conference record and, after this weekend’s sweep by FSU, even receiving a bid to the NCAAs is in jeopardy.
Fans of the team can easily identify the problem, and it’s not on the offensive side of the ledger. Although the team only ranks fourth in the ACC in batting average of.275, and have only hit 25 homeruns, (ahead only of last place Boston College), the team’s offense has been fairly consistent, averaging 4.68 runs per game during the first 22 games of the season and 4.65 runs per game since then.
At the plate, Lauren Gaskill has done a nice job of leading off, batting almost .300 and having an on base percentage of .412. Courtney Liddle remains the leading hitter on the team with a .383 average, and Kylie McGoldrick is a close second at .368 while leading the team in HRs with 6. The Hokies have been hampered a bit by an injury to cleanup hitter Kelsey Mericka, who has not played since March 23 because she fractured a piece of her vertebra. She ranks third on the team with a .306 batting average.
At times, the bottom of the order has struggled, but that’s not the reason for the reason for the team’s nosedive of the last 30 days. Instead, the biggest difference between the first 6 weeks of the season and the last 4 weeks has been pitching, pitching, pitching. Both senior Jasmin Harrell and freshman phenom Kelly Heinz have struggled to duplicate their early season success.
Let’s compare their pitching stats of the first 22 games (all away from home) versus the last 20.
Jasmin Harrell, first 22 games: 7-3, 58.2 IP, 49 H, 24 R, 17 ER, 23 BB, 45K, 6 HR, 2.03 ERA
Jasmin Harrell, last 20 games: 5-4, 51.1 IP, 64 H, 42 R, 38 ER, 18 BB, 34 K, 13 HR, 5.18 ERA
Jasmin Harrell, season stats: 12-7, 110 IP, 113 H, 66 R, 55 ER, 41 BB, 79 K, 19 HR, 3.48 ERA
Kelly Heinz, first 22 games: 9-0, 72.2 IP, 46 H, 19 R, 15 ER, 24 BB, 81 K, 3 HR, 1.47 ERA
Kelly Heinz, last 20 games, 4-5, 52.1 IP, 62 H, 34 R, 30 ER, 19 BB, 54 K, 8 HR, 4.01 ERA
Kelly Heinz, season stats: 13-5, 124 IP, 108 H, 53 R, 45 ER, 43 BB, 135 K, 11 HR, 2.54 ERA
Those are dramatically different stats. Just look at ERA, for example. In the first 22 games, Harrell and Heinz had a combined ERA of 1.72; in the 20 games since then, their combined ERA is 4.55. That’s a huge difference in a sport where runs are at a premium.
And it’s not like the Hokies have been going against murderer’s row of hitting. Florida State is ranked #23 in the ESPN/USA Softball poll; North Carolina is tied for #25. But NC State is 26-18, Georgia Tech is 21-25, and Boston College is 11-30.
Mark Berman reported Saturday that Heinz has “a nagging shoulder injury” that caused her to miss the last BC game and both games versus Longwood. She pitched well against FSU on Saturday until giving up the homerun with two outs in the 7th that beat her. On Sunday, she had unusual control problems, walking 6 in 4.2 innings and made a critical throwing error that led to 3 FSU runs.
Harrell seems to have totally lost her confidence. Excluding a solid outing versus JMU, she has given up 26 runs, 11 homeruns, and has an ERA of 5.87 in her last 7 starts. Things have reached the point that when Heinz got into trouble in Sunday’s game, Scot Thomas went to true freshman Maggie Tyler instead of Harrell.
With the two remaining ACC series being against UVA and Maryland, the Hokies are still in position to earn an NCAA bid. But nothing is certain, as the last 30 days have shown.
Thirty days ago, it looked like the Hokies had a great one-two punch that they could ride to the post-season; now it looks like just getting to the postseason might be an accomplishment.