The smell of freshly cut grass and ballpark hot dogs is in the air. Virginia Tech baseball is just under two weeks away from beginning their season on February 17 at USC Upstate.
Following a recent practice, I was able to sit down with Coach Pat Mason and discuss the 2017 season.
As a part of TSL’s increased coverage of the Hokie baseball team this year, a two-part preview on the team will be released. In the first part, I’ll take a look at Virginia Tech’s position players.
Following a disappointing 19-36 record in his third season as Virginia Tech’s head coach, Mason intends to use last year as a learning experience and a little motivation to fire the guys up. Even through the fall practices and the practices leading up to the season now, he’s seen a renewed energy out of the team.
“You can’t forget anything that has happened in the past,” said Mason. “Good, bad, indifferent, that’s your life experience. Whether it’s on the field or wherever it is. You’re certainly trying to improve upon whatever it is that happened in the past. You’d like to maybe forget it, but it happened. How is that going to make us better this year and today? All we’re trying to do, all we focused on in the fall is trying to win the day, compete, be better today than we were yesterday. We really have a simple focus and a simple mindset with that.”
Last year, the Hokies hit .273 as a team (10th in ACC), slugged .389 (11th in ACC), scored 332 runs (10th in ACC), and scattered 520 hits (10th in ACC). While the offensive production was an improvement from the previous year, Mason expects to fill out a lineup that can become a run-producing machine. For that to happen, the Hokies need to get the clutch hit and find more offensive output when runners are in scoring position.
“We’re looking to try to create more runs,” Mason said. “Our run production was up from the year before after losing [Brendon] Hayden and [Erik] Payne and [Alex] Perez. We actually scored more runs last year, so that was good. What we didn’t do was score runs consistently as much as we wanted. We have to value and take advantage of all the scoring opportunities that you have and creating runs when they’re tough to come by. They’re tough to come by especially on weekends in the ACC. We need to know how to score and we need to know how to create them. That was our biggest focus throughout the fall.”
Perhaps the most important player from a defensive standpoint will be catcher Joe Freiday, Jr. and the work he puts in with the pitching staff. Freiday (Jr.) started 26 games at catcher last year and batted .222. Now that he will be plugged in full-time behind the plate, Mason expects his offensive numbers to jump, but he’s even more excited for the repertoire he’s built with the pitchers.
“Joe’s been a good leader for us this fall,” said Mason. “He’s not afraid to talk to our pitchers, he’s got a good relationship, he’s very likable. Probably one of the most well-liked guys on our team, which is great from a catcher. He’s not afraid to coach them up if he sees something. Our guys respect him. He works really hard so he has all the respect of the staff. We feel really good about how he’s going to handle those guys. In terms of catch and throw, he’s really refined himself on that. His throwing was a little bit of a wild card last year. He’s got a big league arm, but controlling it, he’s worked hard at refining that. Offensively, we’ll take what we can get from him. He’s a big power, huge upside guy. He’s a very streaky hitter. We just want Joe to focus on being a good, reliable, defensive player for us. We want him to take the offense as it comes to him.”
Up the middle, the Hokies will feature two of their more consistent players in Ryan Tufts at shortstop and Matt Dauby at second.
Tufts (Sr.) was the iron man for Tech last year, starting all 55 games at shortstop. In his junior campaign, he tallied 56 hits with a .386 on base percentage. One of the captains on the team, Tufts spoke with confidence about the frame of mind that this team is carrying into the season.
“We’ve just been working hard all fall,” said Tufts. “Just shaping things out to get ready for the season. Getting healthy most importantly. A lot of the guys have been here four or five years now. We’re one of the older teams in the league. We just feel like we’re finally healthy and ready to go.”
Tufts has been one of those players who has continually progressed every season. From freshman year to his junior year, his average jumped from .232 to .245 to .284. If he can produce more of the same, Tufts should cap off his career with a stellar senior season.
“Ryan, we just want to keep building, Mason said. “His first year as a starter in the ACC as a shortstop, we wanted him to settle in and slow down a little bit. Now, continue to make those jumps he’s made offensively every year. Every year has been better than the previous year, and if that happens again this year then he’ll have himself a good season.”
Dauby (r-Sr.) returns completely healthy this year after being hampered by a foot injury for most of 2016. After hitting .255 last year, Dauby should see his numbers jump as he returns to form.
“With Matt it’s tough to block out last year in terms of his hitting,” Mason said. “He was so hurt and his foot was broken. He was an eight hole hitter last year and we got everything we could out of that kid. He had his surgery when the season ended. He’s cleared, he’s fine, all that. We’ll figure out where he best fits in the lineup. Look to have a little more defensive consistency from him. Last year it was what it was playing with a broken foot. It’s kind of unbelievable to even utter those words. He played the whole season with a broken foot, so it’s a fresh start for Matt.”
The one player in the infield who Tech will have to replace is Phil Sciretta. Sciretta, now on staff as the Director of Operations, joined Tufts as the only player to play in all 55 games last year. The hole he leaves will be tough to replace given that Sciretta was second on the team with a .315 average in 2016.
This year, Sam Fragale will move over from third base to replace Sciretta at first, and Jack Owens slides into third base.
Fragale (r-Jr.) hit .267 last year in 50 starts. However, Mason talked about the intangibles that he brings to the team as his most important quality.
“We really don’t want anything different out of Sam,” said Mason. “Certainly we’d love to have him be a little more consistent offensively. He’s very streaky, but that comes with at-bats and experience. We just want more of the same. That hard-nosed, blue collar, no off button, motor always running type leader that he is. Lead by example, but also lead with his vocal leadership. It’s tough to nit-pick on him. He’s made that transition over to first and he looks really comfortable. He looks more natural over there.”
Rounding out the infield in his first year as a starter will be Jack Owens. Owens (r-So.) had to sit out last year after transferring from ECU, so we’ve yet to see him in action while donning the orange and maroon.
“With a guy like Phil Sciretta, we’re looking for a guy to do what Phil did, which was sort of be a role player for a couple years, then when he got his opportunity he performed,” said Mason. “Physically it’s going to be Jack Owens who replaces him in the infield.
“Jack’s a middle infielder. If we wanted to, if we thought it was best we could put Jack at short and slide Ryan over to third. Right now he looks to be our guy. A talented middle infielder, but he’s made the adjustment over to third. He’s a kid who can create runs offensively with his legs. Infield hit type guy, steal, score in the gap. We’re just looking for him to figure out ways to get on. He’s got some sneaky power, but if he can really buy in to just creating runs that will be advantageous for our offense.”’
The biggest question facing the outfield is how they’ll fill the void left by Saige Jenco. Jenco compiled 147 starts over his career as the Hokies’ center fielder and hit over .300 in all three of the seasons that he played. Jenco’s presence within the lineup will certainly be missed, but Mason has some options to plug into his spot.
Rahiem Cooper and Mac Caples are the two players who are getting looks to replace Jenco. Cooper (r-Sr.) hit .203 in limited action last year, but he possesses all the physical tools needed for an everyday center fielder. Caples (Sr.) batted .232 in 2016 while appearing in 27 games, but he also holds the athleticism needed to start in center field.
“Rahiem Cooper or a Mac Caples, it’s going to be one of those two guys in centerfield,” Mason said. “The combination of those two guys, whether it’s Rahiem or Caples, we have two speed guys there. Maybe one of them can’t put up as much production as Saige [Jenco], but combined, we might be able to get more stolen bases, more balls in the gap that are doubles and triples than Saige did. We’re not looking, as I told those guys, whoever is physically playing centerfield, we don’t need you to try to compare yourself to Saige. Collectively, we’re looking at a nine man lineup and that’s the mindset we’re trying to have. If you’re trying to replace a guy like Saige with a guy like Saige then we’ll drive ourselves nuts because Saige is a pretty special player. We know that Mac and Coop are both very athletic as well. I feel good about those options.”
Tom Stoffel returns to find a spot in right field. Stoffel (r-Jr.) hit .270 while splitting some time in right and left last year. He’s expected to be a middle of the lineup type guy who can provide some pop and drive in some runs.
“We’ll keep Tommy in right,” Mason said. “I think he’s found a nice home there. He’s reliable and will probably be our three hole hitter. We’re not looking to make many adjustments.”
Rounding out the outfield will likely be Stevie Mangrum in left field. Mangrum (So.) saw little action as a freshman and batted .179. He’s a guy who Mason has pointed to as an X-factor for the lineup, potentially as someone who could replace Sciretta in terms of offensive output.
“A guy like Mangrum would be our next guy in,” said Mason. “Stevie is extremely talented. He’s had a good preseason so far, so if he can settle in that would be very nice to see him in our order. He has a reputation, he’s a draft guy out of high school. He just gives us a little bit of an edge with a really high end talent, especially offensively. That’s probably where we’ll be roughly as a lineup.”
Grant Maiorana is another name to keep in mind for an outfield spot. Maiorana (So.) started off his freshman year hot, but it was quickly derailed when he sustained an injury after crashing into an outfield wall.
“Grant Maiorana is that run creating type bat,” said Mason. “Scrappy kid who really started the first half of the year last year. He was the two hole hitter opening day. Ran into an outfield wall about half-way through the year, kind of jammed his shoulder up. He didn’t play the second half of the season last year. He’s starting to look like he did a year ago. He’s an outfielder, emergency catcher, emergency infielder, still looking for that perfect fit defensively. He’s going to help us in some capacity.”
Nick Anderson was the Hokies’ leading hitter last year, batting .339. Anderson (r-Jr.) could get some looks in the outfield, but his main role will be as Tech’s designated hitter since he will be a part of the pitching rotation. Anderson’s power should represent a key piece within the middle of the order.
“Nick played some left for us last year, but in a perfect world we can DH him, especially if he’s one of our rotation arms” said Mason.
Two freshmen will be coming off the bench as critical pieces for Tech in JD Mundy and Jake Rosen. Mundy provides a lefty bat who will be used in pinch-hit opportunities as well as the occasional start. Rosen can play anywhere in the infield and should see some time in the late innings for defensive purposes.
“JD will be one of our lefties,” Mason said. “He’ll probably get some spot starts. If the matchup is right, he’ll be a matchup guy. He’ll be our lefty off the bench. He’s going to see some at-bats. We’re high on him. Rosen will give us an opportunity to make some late game adjustments. He can play all the infield positions. He’s got a good glove. He’ll be that fifth infielder.”
Mason is confident in the lineup he’ll fill out on a game to game basis. All the parts are there, it’s just a case of how they’ll all work together once the season begins.