College baseball has arrived. After months and months of preparation in the fall and winter, college teams around the country are ready to lace up the cleats and take the field.
That means we’ll get our first look at the John Szefc era of Virginia Tech baseball, as the Hokies open the season this Friday against Coastal Carolina in the first of four games at the Coastal Carolina Tournament running from Friday-Monday.
“The competition there is really good,” Szefc said. “Potentially, every one of those teams should be NCAA Tournament type teams. We’ll be tested pretty early. I just want our guys to get down there and be able to play comfortably and be able to execute offensive plans, defensive plans, stuff we’ve been working on since September. Just continue to aggressively attack people that we’re playing. If we’re able to do that, we’ll have a lot of success.”
Szefc and Co. take over for Pat Mason, who led Virginia Tech to a 23-32 record last year and a 90-126-1 overall record in his four years at the helm. Expectations are higher than they’ve been in awhile for the Hokies with the arrival of the new coaching staff and all the momentum from the English Field at Union Park renovations.
“I’m just looking forward to getting out on the field with these guys and just getting out there and competing with them,” Szefc said. “We’ve been working at it for a long time and you like to see your guys get a little bit of payback for the work they’ve put in.”
Key Stats from 2017
.277 team batting average (7th ACC)
.369 team on base percentage (7th ACC)
84 team home runs (2nd ACC)
5.79 team ERA (14th ACC)
2.99 opponent batting average (14th ACC)
454 team strikeouts (9th ACC)
Catcher: Joe Freiday Jr. returns for his senior year to command the pitching staff behind the plate. Freiday batted .225 last year with eight home runs and 23 RBIs. Redshirt junior Luke Horanski transferred in after beginning his career at Creighton and playing last year at Cisco Junior College. He hit .356 in 40 games at Cisco and could get some starts at catcher or as a designated hitter.
First Base: In the preseason, Tom Stoffel has been getting a lot of looks at first base, in addition to drills in the outfield and as a pitcher.
“It probably depends on his arm because he had a speed bump with his elbow early on, so he hasn’t been throwing as much,” Szefc said. “I think initially, he’ll probably DH and play in the outfield. As he gets a little more comfortable and gets back to throwing, he’ll hopefully be able to play first base for us.”
Wherever Stoffel ends up playing in the field, there’s no doubt he’ll provide big pop from the middle of the lineup. The Second Team All-ACC performer hit .342 last year with eight home runs and 49 RBIs. Sophomore JD Mundy will also get his chances at first base. As a freshman, Mundy appeared in 40 games, batting .232 with five home runs and 17 RBIs.
Second Base: Redshirt junior Jack Owens returns to reclaim his spot at the top of the order and at second base. After transferring from East Carolina, Owens started all 55 games last season and had a team high 86 hits, good for a .358 batting average. Freshman Michael Fernandez is in place to assume backup duties.
Shortstop: The biggest loss for the Hokies is iron man shortstop Ryan Tufts, who graduated last spring. Tufts started 161 games in his four-year career, including starting every game his junior and senior season. Tufts hit .307 with nine home runs and 30 RBIs last year from the two hole. Redshirt junior Nick Owens is expected to replace Tufts, forming an Owens to Owens connection of the middle. Owens redshirted in his only year at NC State before playing at St. John’s River State College for two years. At SJRSC, Owens was a two-time Mid-Florida All-Conference selection at shortstop.
“He’s a seasoned guy who’s been around the college game for three years,” Szefc said. “His biggest thing for me, and really any infielder, especially with the middle guys is his defense.”
Freshman shortstop Jojo Odachowski is another player who’s made major progress over the preseason and could earn some time.
Third Base: Sam Fragale returns for his redshirt senior season and will transition from first base to third base. The 2017 Second Team All-ACC selection did record 48 starts at third in his redshirt sophomore season, so the position is nothing new for Fragale. In 2017, Fragale batted .310 and crushed 15 home runs along with 63 RBIs from the middle of the lineup. More than anything, Fragale is the unheralded vocal leader on the team. “He does everything right,” said hitting coach Kurt Elbin. “From the way he prepares, works, shows up every day, his intensity, his energy, and his focus.”
Freshman Cam Irvine is an interesting name to watch out for throughout the season.
“He’s a guy who’s really swung the bat well,” Szefc said. “If his bat continues to show up and do what it’s been doing, I would imagine he’ll find his way into the lineup. Maybe it’s as a DH if Tom [Stoffel] plays first, it might be in the outfield. He plays third by trade, but it’s a matter of getting a bat in the lineup if he’s being productive.”
The Hokies lose quite a bit from the outfield last year, including Rahiem Cooper and Mac Caples. Cooper started 52 games and knocked 12 balls over the fence, good for second on the team in home runs. Caples started 44 games and batted .244 with nine home runs.
Junior Nick Menken is expected to be handed the reins in centerfield after spending his last two seasons at Iowa Western Community College. Menken hit .338 over those two years and led Iowa Western CC to the semifinals of the NJCAA World Series.
“Nick’s a legitimate defender in center field,” Szefc said. “He’s the kind of guy that can take runs off the board with his defense. You don’t find that very often. He’s a big asset to us in a lot of ways. He’s coming off a wrist injury, so I think when he’s 100 percent, he’ll be a fun guy to watch because he can hit and because he can run.”
Junior Stevie Mangrum will likely start in one of the corner outfield spots. A 28th round draft pick out of high school, Mangrum hit .284 last season with three home runs and 11 RBIs in 36 appearances. Freshman Darion Jacoby is poised to start heading into the season. The Pottsville, Pennsylvania native was a three-time All-Area First Team selection. Depending on how Szefc decides to use him, Stoffel could also be a corner outfielder. He made 52 starts in right field in 2017.
Kit Scheetz, Packy Naughton, Nick Anderson, and Aaron McGarity are all big arms gone from last year’s team. Out of the 55 starts on the bump, the returning roster only contributed to 27 of those. Senior Connor Coward headlines the rotation and will be the Friday night starter. He has 49 starts in his career and has the chance to pass Brian Fitzgerald (1993-1996) whose 59 starts are the most in Virginia Tech history.
Last year, Coward compiled a 5-4 record with a 4.75 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 72.0 innings.
“Coward is going to have to really lock down Friday for us,” said pitching coach Ryan Fecteau. “He’s just one of those guys that really has to take that next step if he’s going to be an elite ACC Friday night starter. He has the stuff and the makeup for it.”
Redshirt sophomore Nic Enright will be an integral arm for the Hokies after he sat out last year while recovering from Tommy John Surgery. Enright, a 15th round draft pick out of high school, started 5 games as a freshman. Sophomore Dylan Hall is a guy who Szefc expects to compete for a starting role. Hall didn’t start in any games as a freshman, but he had a spectacular summer with the Strasburg Express, firing 47.2 innings and collecting a 2.45 ERA with 45 strikeouts en route to a 4-1 record.
Freshman Ian Seymour is someone who has impressed from the Fall World Series all the way back in October and November.
“He’s really good,” Szefc said. “Throws a lot of strikes. He should be in that mode also.”
Redshirt freshman Connor Yoder had to sit out last year with Tommy John surgery and he’s currently dealing with a foot injury, but once he’s back healthy, he should be another guy the Hokies can rely upon.
Virginia Tech boasts three seniors who will be impact guys out of the bullpen in Andrew McDonald, Joey Sullivan, and Luke Scherzer. McDonald had 10 starts last year, but Szefc sees him as a guy who will gel in a long relief type role.
“McDonald with his experience,” Szefc said. “He had a really good summer. At the back end, I think he’s comfortable in that mode.”
Sullivan led the team last year with 30 appearances, 26 of those coming out of the bullpen. He’ll maintain a similar role this year. Luke Scherzer has missed the last two seasons with two Tommy John surgeries, but he should be ready to go in his redshirt senior season. He picked up nine combined saves in his first two seasons. Three freshmen are also expected to be key contributors in lefty Ryan Okuda and righties Zach Bryzkcy and Gavin Hinchliffe.
“They all have the kind of stuff that could get you 3-6 outs depending on the matchups,” Szefc said. “They’ve been a little up and down, but that’s what young guys are. You kind of hope that you can get some production from those guys.”
Returners Paul Hall Jr. and Graham Seitz will also be used in various situations.
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