Virginia Tech baseball began its season this past Friday at the 19th annual Brittain Resorts Baseball at the Beach tournament in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Playing four games in four days, Virginia Tech finished with a 1-3 record, defeating Oklahoma (14-6) and losing to Coastal Carolina (17-2), No. 17 South Alabama (7-5), and Kansas State (6-5). This isn’t unchartered territory for coach John Szefc. Last year at Maryland, the Terrapins started the year 1-5 before making the NCAA Tournament with a 38-23 record.
“It was a slow start by numbers, but we got a lot accomplished this weekend,” Szefc said. “There was a lot of guys who played college baseball for the first time at this level. We didn’t play any slouches down there at all. Every one of those teams was in the NCAA Tournament last year with the exception of Coastal Carolina, who won the National Championship in 2016. There was no pushovers there at all. We have to get a little more strategic with how we use our late game pitchers because we’re not very deep. I think our guys made good progress. People might not understand that just looking at the numbers, but sometimes a trip like that can help pay a lot of dividends as the season goes on.”
The Hokies finished 1-3 over the course of the tournament, but had a real shot of returning to Blacksburg with a 3-1 record. In the losses to South Alabama and Kansas State, Virginia Tech led late in the ball game but surrendered one disastrous inning in each of those games. A four run 6th inning by South Alabama and a four run 8th inning by Kansas State was eventually the difference.
“It’s just a matter of how we use guys I think,” Szefc said. “A four-game weekend versus a three-game is a big difference. We had a couple guys in there who were pitching for the first time. It’s a very old group in some senses and a very young group in other senses, so it’s a very unique team. You just have to be patient with guys and keep plugging along with them.”
One area that cost the Hokies in those losses was their defense. In the win over Oklahoma, Virginia Tech played error-free baseball, but in their three losses, the Hokies combined for seven errors. In the loss to Kansas State, five of the six runs that the Wildcats scored were unearned, including all four in the bottom of the 8th inning.
“You’re always trying to pitch well and play clean defense,” Szefc said. “Several of the errors on Monday were when we were playing in the rain, guys were throwing a wet ball. Kansas State was too. Errors are part of the game, they’re going to happen. You just have to be able to deal with it. We didn’t do too good of a job of dealing with it on Monday. We just have to hang in there and keep working on it.”
Two players stood out for Virginia Tech over the tournament. Luke Horanski, the redshirt junior catcher who transferred from Cisco Junior College, batted .400 with 1 home run, 6 RBIs, and a .733 slugging percentage from the cleanup position. Sophomore Dylan Hall started the first game of his career and picked up the win against Oklahoma, firing 5 innings and giving up 6 hits, 1 earned run, 2 walks, and 4 strikeouts.
“Luke plays a vital defensive position for us and hits in the middle of the lineup,” Szefc said. “He’s got a strong enough will where he can do those things.
“Dylan had a great start. He threw lots of strikes, he threw against a high level Big 12 team. What we preach an awful lot is getting ahead of hitters and pitching with a quick tempo, and he did that exact thing.”
Hall got ahead of hitters, but the majority of the team struggled to do so. Over the four games, Virginia Tech walked 32 batters. In comparison, the opponents only walked 16 Hokies. Heading into the New Orleans tournament this upcoming weekend, Szefc expects to see an improvement in that area.
“Really from a pitching perspective to get ahead of hitters and pitch with a good tempo,” Szefc said. “We’ll have more success as our pitchers get ahead of hitters. If their hitters are always in 1-0, 2-1, 3-1 counts, regardless of walks, that’s where you’re going to get into a lot of problems. That’s kind of what we were battling all last weekend. Just about every one of our arms, this will be their second or third outings. As guys start to accrue more outings and more at bats, they’ll start to play more relaxed and in control where they can really do what they do best.”
There’s no rest for the weary. Virginia Tech’s three opponents (Iowa, Ball State, and New Orleans) at the AllState Sugar Bowl Baseball Classic in New Orleans have a combined record of 7-4, with Iowa maintaining a 3-0 record.
“Rick Heller does a good job at Iowa,” Szefc said. “I’m really good friends with him, having gone against him in the Big 10 when I was in Maryland. We played Ball State last year when I was at Maryland, so I know Rich [Maloney] and he does a good job with his guys. It’s always hard playing a team in their home park like New Orleans. We’ll have our hands full there, too, but hopefully our guys are a little further along having four games under their belt. We might do some different things with our pitching, playing three games as opposed to four. It’s just going to be a matter of how some things shake out.”
The AllState Sugar Bowl Baseball Classic is the second of three regular season tournaments that Virginia Tech will be playing in. The final tournament is the Westin Lake Mary Stetson Invitational from March 2 – March 7.
Virginia Tech plays their first game at home on February 27 against Radford. Renovations are still being made on English Field at Union Park
Maryland junior pitcher Billy Phillips made his first appearance since recovering from Leukemia. Szefc recruited Phillips to Maryland and developed a relationship with him during his time at Maryland. Szefc had this to say about Phillips overcoming Leaukemia and pitching…
“Billy is a pretty special guy. I visited him in the hospital when he was 130 pounds and he wasn’t doing very well at the time. A part of me wasn’t sure whether or not he’d physically be able to come back and pitch at that level in college baseball. I thought he’d come back, I just didn’t know what level. He’s a very competitive guy. There’s a lot of stories in college sports, a lot of negative stories. That story is about as positive a story as you’ll ever see. He’s very good too. As he keeps getting better, he’ll be a really big part of what’s going on there.”