After a long offseason, Virginia Tech baseball is finally in the full swing of their fall season, lacing up the cleats and stepping back onto the diamond. With a week of practice now complete, the Hokies had their second intrasquad scrimmage Friday night under the lights at English Field at Union Park.
“Last week they each threw one inning, and tonight we saw a couple guys throw two innings, so they’re still finding their identity,” said head coach Patrick Mason. “Some guys who are new to our program and maybe aren’t comfortable yet, and some of the older guys in leadership roles are still trying to figure out what their role is. I think what I’ve seen from our team is still a team searching for their identity, but we’ve had some leaders like Sam Fragale be more vocal. Kit Scheetz has been pretty vocal, as well as Luke Scherzer. So we’ve had some guys emerge as leaders who weren’t necessarily leaders last year. Sam in particular has done a really good job in that role.”
Fragale figures to be one of the impact performers for the Hokies during the 2017 season. The redshirt junior infielder was the model of consistency last year, appearing in all 55 games. He hit .267 and belted seven home runs and 37 RBIs, but his leadership appears to be the biggest factor for the Hokies in the fall and into the spring.
“First of all, it’s an honor that he [Mason] thinks of me as a leader,” Fragale said. “A lot of it just comes with being more vocal on the field, that’s what we talk about as infielders. We kind of control a lot, so that’s a huge thing for me along with the other guys on the infield because that’s a big aspect of the game.”
With Fragale and the rest of the team reunited, there’s a palpable buzz among the guys who are ready to find some steady improvement in the fall season.
“It’s been great, mainly just getting back with the guys,” Fragale explained. “That’s a huge part. Playing away is fun in the summer, but pretty much all summer you’re just thinking about getting back with your boys and playing with them. I think it’s gone well so far, we still have a lot to improve on, but I think we’re going to improve a lot over the next five weeks.”
Following a 19-36 record last season, the Hokies are anxious to right the misfortunes of 2016. In fact, the Hokies’ struggles from last year can be seen as some motivation to work even harder now in the fall.
“Last year happened,” Mason said. “If that doesn’t get you out of bed in the morning, if that doesn’t motivate you to be better, than there was no sense in even participating last year. The same could be said for winning. Your experience can define who you are in the moment and who you want to be. They better be drawing from last year, and they better be drawing from it in a positive way.”
Moreover, Mason brought in former Hokie Ronnie Shaban to speak with the team and provide some motivation. Shaban just finished the year playing for the Springfield Cardinals and Memphis Redbirds, the St. Louis Cardinals’ AA and AAA affiliates. While Shaban was only used sparingly as a pitcher for the Hokies, he’s found his niche on the mound in the minor leagues. In 2016, the 6-1, 195 lb right hander finished with an 8-3 record, holding a 2.93 earned run average while collecting 10 saves.
“I’m looking for guys who know how to win or just have a will to win,” said Mason. “We asked Ronnie [Shaban] to come back and speak to our team. Ronnie just finished up pro ball season in AAA. He finished here in 2012 and I told our guys in the 18, 19, or 20 years, however long I’ve been coaching, there’s probably three people I’ve coached who have separated themselves among some really competitive athletes, and Ronnie is one of them. Every day, even in the off-season, even this morning, all Ronnie did was think about how he was going to be better than everybody else he comes across. He thought about what he was going to say to these guys for the last week, and that’s just who Ronnie is.
“I wanted Ronnie to come back and sort of talk about that and just tell the guys how he prepares throughout the year and throughout a day or an outing, whatever it is. We are definitely looking for certain positions to be filled, but more importantly I’m looking for guys who are competing.”
On a night where the bats had the advantage over the arms in the scrimmage, the pitching staff appears to be the biggest x-factor for Virginia Tech. With the addition of pitching coach Jamie Pinzino, if the Hokies can establish some stability within the rotation and avoid injuries, the staff has a profound potential for success. One of the players looking to lead atop the rotation is the junior southpaw, Packy Naughton.
“I know he [Pinzino] has a very, very high standard to hold us too,” Naughton said. “I think that is making us better already. Just the way he coaches, it’s really helping our staff out a lot. I’m just trying to help us win ball games honestly, that’s what it comes down to. We have a great staff coming back this year. We have an experienced staff, a lot of veterans who have been on the team for two or three years, so I think that coming back and the experience alone is going to help us win.”
While plenty of time remains before the regular season begins, the Hokies have already gotten off to a fast start in the fall, aiming to take the program back to the level it belongs.