In their most important series of the season to date, the Virginia Tech baseball team made a major statement against No. 5 Virginia, taking two-of-three games from the Cavaliers over the weekend.
The Hokies rebounded from an ugly 15-6 loss on Friday night to beat the Cavaliers twice on Saturday. With rain in the forecast, the Hokies played a doubleheader, beating UVa 5-3 and 11-6.
“You don’t have many opportunities to beat a team that’s well coached like they are and as accomplished like they are twice in a day,” said Virginia Tech head coach Pete Hughes. “I’ve never coached a team that’s had such a good day against such a good opponent.”
Friday Night: UVa 15, VT 6
Virginia Tech starting pitcher Brad Markey continued to struggle against ACC opponents, lasting just 5.2 innings. His poor start is part of a recent string of bad outings.
“I’m just concerned about Brad Markey,” Hughes said. “We have to get a better start on Friday. The kid’s trying like crazy to do it, and we’ll think about that next week.”
Over his last 19.2 innings (four starts), Markey has allowed 34 runs (28 earned) on 38 hits.
The Cavaliers jumped on the Hokies early, taking a 5-1 lead in the second inning. The lead was enough for UVa’s freshman starting pitcher Brandon Waddell, who navigated through 5.2 innings while throwing just 77 pitches.
Waddell’s six runs allowed Friday night was the most he has allowed all season. He had plenty of run support, though, as the Cavaliers posted a season-high 17 hits.
Tech’s defense, which has plagued the Hokies all season, reared its ugly head again on Friday night. The Hokies committed three errors, bringing their total to an ACC-leading 73 at the time.
“We can’t play high caliber baseball when we have three errors,” Hughes said. “That led to a lot of runs and a lot of damage control innings because we didn’t play defense.”
Saturday Game 1: VT 5, UVa 3
Behind a gutsy performance by senior Joe Mantiply, the Hokies scratched and clawed to a 5-3 win in Game 1 of Saturday’s doubleheader.
Mantiply, winless against the Cavaliers in his career, allowed three runs on six hits over seven innings as the Hokies beat a top five team at home for the third time in 2013.
“Joe Mantiply is going to give us a good start whether he’s throwing 75 or 95,” Hughes said. “The competitive spirit in that kid is unlike anyone I’ve ever coached.”
Mantiply, who worked through numerous jams during his outing, threw 135 pitches on the day, the second-most in his Tech career (May 19, 2011 against Georgia Tech when he threw 137). He became the first Tech pitcher to start 4-0 in ACC play.
“I actually had no clue I had thrown that many pitches,” Mantiply said. “I knew I was up there, but I didn’t know it was 135. I was good, my arm felt great. Even going into the seventh inning, I had my stuff and I was spotting up and competing, grinding and trying to get us to the win.”
Hughes changed up his defensive alignment on Saturday, moving Chad Pinder to shortstop and Alex Perez to second base. Brendon Hayden played third base in place of Pinder, and Kyle Wernicki played center field in place of the injured Gary Schneider.
“I thought it took a lot of pressure off of Alex,” Hughes said. “It took a lot of pressure off our team I thought. To have the combination of both those guys in the middle was reassuring for a lot of people. It worked out better than anticipated.”
The Hokies took a 2-0 lead in the first inning against Virginia starter Scott Silverstein. Perez scored on a sacrifice fly by Tyler Horan and Sean Keselica scored on a single by Andrew Rash.
The Cavaliers and Hokies went back and forth in the middle innings before Tech’s Chad Morgan broke a 3-3 tie in the sixth inning with an RBI single through the right side to score Rash. The next batter, Perez, singled home Brendon Hayden to make it 5-3.
Tech’s bullpen closed the door on the Cavaliers down the stretch, going two innings without allowing a hit. With the bases loaded and one out in the eighth, Clark Labitan, in relief of Brendon Hayden, induced a 6-4-3 double play to escape the jam. In the ninth, he sat the Cavaliers down in order to record his sixth save of the season.
“Hayden hasn’t been in that situation,” Hughes said. “He threw five straight pitches for balls, and I just kind of felt momentum shift. Clark is our guy that has been in that situation and he went and settled things down.”
Saturday Game 2: VT 11, UVa 6
Riding the momentum of the day’s first game, the Hokies’ hot bats carried over into the rubber game of the series. Tech pummeled UVa pitching to the tune of 11 runs on 11 hits.
Horan (2-for-4, HR, two RBI) and Rash (3-for-3, HR, two RBI) each had multiple hits for the Hokies in Saturday’s second game. Every Tech starter with the exception of Wernicki had at least one hit.
The 11 runs scored by Tech are the most the Cavaliers have allowed all season.
“Coach (Mike) Kunigonis put together a good game plan together,” Hughes said. “It was all predicated on their secondary stuff and making sure the ball was up and seeing everything up and staying with that approach.”
Tech starter Devin Burke wasn’t the sharpest he’s been this season, but his 7.1 strong innings was plenty against the No. 5 team in the country.
“I just want to go out and give my team the best opportunity to win, like I said last week,” Burke said. “If that means giving up five runs when we have a big offensive day, that’s what it is. We played unbelievable defense, and at the end of the day, because of that, I executed some pitches and we got a win out of it.”
Trailing 3-2 entering the bottom of the third inning, the Hokies scored eight runs in the fourth and fifth innings combined. Virginia starting pitcher Nick Howard (2.1 innings, seven earned runs) had his worst start of the season and fell to 5-4.
Burke said he took his cue from Mantiply and carried the Hokies to a series win.
“That was huge — Joe had an outstanding day, and once we got that win we had a chance to win the series,” Burke said. “They’re one of the best teams in the nation, so I just wanted to come out and do the very best I could to make sure we won this series. This is a huge momentum builder for us and should propel us into the postseason.”
Summing Up the Weekend and Looking Ahead
After a dreadful series opener, the Hokies put it all together on Saturday. It all started with quality outings by Mantiply and Burke.
“There was no other option,” Hughes said. “We needed two solid starts from both those guys. Those guys threw a lot of strikes to a very patient offense. Those guys did a really good job against an outstanding offense.”
The Hokies swung hot bats over the weekend, hitting .303 over the three games and .318 in the two games Saturday. Tech did that damage against the ACC’s third-best pitching staff (Virginia entered the series with a 2.71 ERA).
Tech’s series win over UVa the first series win over Virginia since the 2009 season.
UVa head coach Brian O’Connor was disappointed with his team’s play in Blacksburg over the weekend.
“It comes down to that it starts on the mound,” O’Connor said. “You have to execute your pitches, you have to play good defense and we didn’t do those two things today. Quite frankly, I don’t think we did it in any of the three games.”
After losing six-straight ACC games, Hughes told his team to focus on winning the remaining four conference series. The simple approach has worked, as the Hokies are 4-2 against Maryland and Virginia in the last two weekends.
“Let’s simplify things here,” Hughes said. “Let’s just go and win series; it’s not monumental. We’re going to play good every day or we’re going to figure out how to win a series every weekend, and then we will pick our head up at the end of the year and see where we’re at.”
The Hokies travel to Boston College (7-35, 1-21 ACC) next weekend, and after a weekend off from ACC play, host Wake Forest (24-22, 7-16 ACC) the weekend of May 16-18 to round out ACC play. Avoiding a letdown against teams that are a combined 8-37 in conference play is critical.
“It’s big — we need to get greedy and we need to start taking games,” Rash said. “We have Wake Forest and BC the next two, and we need to go in there with a mind that we’re going to take the series from those guys and keep playing.”
The Hokies remain in eighth place in the ACC with the series win over the Cavaliers. The top eight ACC teams, including the top two teams in each division, will make the ACC Championship in Durham, NC on May 22-26.
Matt Jones is a Virginia Tech senior majoring in Communications and is the sports editor of the Collegiate Times.