Virginia Tech baseball has come out of the gates firing in 2017, jumping out to an 8-1 start to the season. The hot start has earned the Hokies a No. 19 ranking, their first time being ranked since 2013.
In fact, it’s exactly the start that the players and coaching staff expected coming into the year.
“During this fall we all knew that we were going to be overlooked because of the underwhelming season we had last year,” said catcher Joe Freiday. “We were ready for this. We knew we were going to have a lot of talent coming back. An old, very veteran team. Plenty of guys with plenty of experience leading the way for the younger guys. We have had younger guys who have stepped into big roles like Graham Seitz, JD Mundy, and Marcus White. We’re so solid one through nine that it’s just helping us continue to put up runs all throughout the order.”
While being ranked is certainly a step in the right direction, the Hokies have much bigger aspirations and that is only the start of the process. At the same time, Tech isn’t focusing on the rankings, but instead keeping a mindset that is focused on the task in the moment.
“We’re not paying attention to anything like that,” said center fielder Rahiem Cooper. “Every game we’re trying to go 1-0 and then we’ll look up and see where we are at the end of the season. As a team, just try to focus. Just win all those games and try to go 1-0 each and every day. We can’t really worry about what’s ahead or what’s in the past. We just have to worry about the next game at hand.”
The primary reason for Virginia Tech’s hot start has been the offensive explosion at the plate. In particular, the home run has been the x-factor for the Hokies thus far. Tech has already hit 23 home runs this year through nine games as opposed to 34 home runs through all 55 games last year. The Hokies’ 23 home runs hit is the most in Division I baseball.
“It’s great, it relaxes our team a little bit when we put up runs like that and we can play with a lead,” said head coach Pat Mason. “It’s been a product of Coach Connolly’s philosophy and more important our players executing, sticking to the plan and executing. It’s one thing to stick to a plan, but you’re not always going to get perfect execution. Believe me, we haven’t had perfect execution, but the guys have been executing at a pretty high rate. Getting a particular pitch that they’re looking for and hitting it on the button and getting rewarded for it. I think it would be unrealistic to keep this type of pace up, but hitting is contagious and when some guys are sticking to it and you see our leaders sticking to, guys like Sam and the newer guys in the lineup would be likely to want to follow suit. It’s been great to be able to put up runs like that as we figure everything else out. We haven’t played perfect defense and we haven’t pitched perfectly, but those home runs have given us a little margin for error.”
It hasn’t just been one player for Tech who has been carrying the home run tally either. Sam Fragale leads the way with five home runs (tied for second in the nation), Ryan Tufts and Rahiem Cooper each have four, while Freiday has three. Freiday and Cooper both pointed to the work that the Hokies have put in during the off-season as well as a sound approach at the plate for the early season success.
“It kind of was something that was predicted by a bunch of guys on the team,” Freiday said. “We work real hard in the weight room, definitely the hardest working team in the weight room that I’ve ever been on. I can’t imagine anyone doing much more than we are. We’re all real supportive of each other when we’re in there, hyping each other up. Just putting up the big weight that equates to the power on the field. Taking a lot of pride in every swing, every day. That’s going to lead you to finding the barrel and putting the ball over the wall.”
“I think since August we’ve just been putting in the work,” said Cooper. “Coach keeps telling us to stick with our approach at the plate, and just attacking the fastball. Getting a good pitch to hit, and I guess the ball has just been jumping off our bats. We’re just sticking with our game plan, trusting each other, and getting the job done.”
Sam Fragale had the opening day that seemed impossible to top when he hit three dingers and knocked in seven RBIs. That was of course before the Rahiem Cooper show on February 26 in the 24-10 rout of Nevada. Cooper exploded for three home runs as well (two grand slams) and nine RBIs. This was the first time in Virginia Tech history that a player hit two grand slams in the same game. Cooper’s performance earned him a National Player of the Week by Collegiate Baseball. For Tech to have two players have two separate three home run games in such a short span is certainly an oddity that you never see at the college level.
“Probably would be something I remember if I had seen it,” Mason said. “I’ve coached a kid who had 27 home runs one year, but probably haven’t really seen that, especially that short amount of time in between. Those two games, you’re talking about a nine game period to have two guys hit three home runs. It’s great to see, it’s fun to see, it’s important that we’re getting production one through nine. Coop coming up big for us on that day. We were thin in the bullpen and obviously 24 runs is a lot of runs, but believe me when I tell you we needed every run we could get that day. We were stretched thin and hadn’t gone deep into games with our starters and our bullpen had been taxed, so it was important. I don’t recall seeing that type of output from two different people in that short of time.”
Cooper, a redshirt senior, has emerged so far this year as the apparent every day center fielder. Always a fleet-footed outfielder, his offensive production has lagged behind in the past, but he’s putting up huge offensive numbers this year. Mason spoke about the development he’s seen in Cooper through the first nine games.
“He’s someone who has been in our program for five years,” said Mason. “He’s sneaky strong. He’s someone who has worked really hard in the weight room for five years. He doesn’t walk into the room and you look and say, ‘Man, that guy is a big presence.’ But he is a strong kid. He’s a really strong kid with a quick bat. The key to him is getting the barrel to the ball. He is strong enough to get rewarded if he does. I think that’s been the biggest thing for him in the previous couple years. It’s just been inconsistent at bats. It’s good for him to get some confidence early in the season. That’s something he can draw from at some point this year when things aren’t going great for him. That’s the game of baseball, he’ll hit a slump, he’ll hit adversity. It’s something he can draw from when he needs to.”
Any team is going to be successful when they average 9.8 runs per game like the Hokies have done through the first nine games. Now the challenge will be to see if they can maintain a pace close to that production, especially heading into ACC play.
“We just have to realize that we don’t have to change a thing,” Freiday said. “If we’re doing it right now, I don’t see any reason why we can’t continue to do it. I don’t see any reason why we can’t continue to flourish as an offense and really continue to put up the numbers that we are. Just sticking to our approach and not trying to do anything too crazy.”
While the long ball has been the Hokies’ answer in the early going, Mason realizes the need for them to create runs in other ways. The home runs will come and go, but situational hitting, bunting, using the hit-and-run, all fundamentals that could make or break a game will be critical down the stretch.
“The challenge first and foremost offensively is that we’re going to have to really continue to generate runs,” said Mason. “It’s something that is sort of lost a little bit in the home runs. We’ve done a pretty good job at situational hitting. Guy at second base, moving him over, hitting him in. There’s room for improvement within that, but we need to continue to rely on the fact that we can generate runs if home runs aren’t coming our way. We can play a whole game without any home runs, pick our heads up and say, ‘What did we do situationally, what did we do with two out RBI situations?’ Those RBI situations are usually difference makers in games. Going into ACC play, we need to play better defense, we need to pitch a lot better. We need to get more out of our starters. More distance into games, more innings from those guys. There’s a lot for us to improve on right now. Those home runs and the power and 9.8 runs a game like you said has masked some of our flaws right now, which is fine. That’s baseball. We could easily go through a spurt where we’re giving up less than a run per game for a 10 game period. That would mask that fact that we’re not putting up maybe as many runs.”
Virginia Tech has surprised a lot of folks early on, but one thing is for sure: this was completely expected by the team. The home runs, the offensive performances, the wins, it was all envisioned before the season started and it has now come to fruition.