The sun was shining in the beginning, but there was a cool breeze in the air by the time Virginia Tech baseball finished its home opener. The Hokies (3-5) defeated their New River Valley foe Radford (3-5) by a score of 3-2 in 12 innings.
The fans went home happy when Jack Owens laid down a suicide squeeze bunt to score Darion Jacoby for the winning run. It was Owens’ second career walk-off, with his first dating back to April 2, 2017 when he singled home the game-winning run against Boston College.
“Darion did a good job of leading the inning off, [Cam] Irvine moves him over, and Stevie [Mangrum] has a good hit behind him,” said Head Coach John Szefc who picked up his first home win with the Hokies. “We spend a lot of time on our bunting game. The situation was just right, Jack Owens is our best bunter. We had a good runner on third. You prepare for that play. Sometimes guys might not think it’s in a walk-off spot, but in a game like that you do whatever you have to do to get it over.”
Owens stepped up to the plate and didn’t flinch when he received the sign from third base coach Kurt Elbin. Coach Szefc puts an emphasis on small ball during his practices, so Owens was prepared for the moment.
“I was 100 percent ready for it,” Owens said. “I like bunting, and it was the right count and the right situation.
“My heart wasn’t even racing because we’re just so used to bunting off the machine every single day. Every day we come to the field, we’re bunting in multiple situations. It was just another situation that you had to get done.”
Fans packed the left field line terrace area for the home opener with the seats behind the plate still being under construction as a part of the $18 million renovation of English Field at Union Park. Most of the game, those fans were left groaning as the Hokies struggled from the plate. They hit 4-for-20 with runners on base and 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
Radford took the 2-1 lead in the fifth inning and Hokies couldn’t muster any runs until the last inning. Sam Fragale started the ninth inning with a double and moved to third base by tagging up on a Luke Horanski fly out. Virginia Tech was down to its last out when Fragale scored the tying run on a wild pitch from Radford’s Austin Ross.
“We didn’t really do much offensively tonight, but we pitched and played good defense,” Szefc said. “We’ll get there offensively. Our approach with two strikes has got to be better. If you’re pitching and playing defense, you’re going to have a chance to win every game. Outside of the first game, we’ve done that. That’s what gives me a great feeling of optimism about the group.”
It certainly was the pitching and defense that carried Virginia Tech. Nic Enright started the game and Ryan Okuda provided an inning of relief work. However, it was the trio of Joey Sullivan, Andrew McDonald, and Graham Seitz that kept the Hokies in the game. They combined for 8.0 innings of scoreless work out of the bullpen.
Seitz picked up his first collegiate win, but it was McDonald who was particularly impressive. The right-hander tossed 4.2 innings, gave up one hit and no runs, and struck out five batters. After being a starting pitcher for much of his career, McDonald has settled into a reliever role this year, appearing in five games already and giving up no earned runs in 12.1 innings pitched.
“For me it’s just about staying in attack mode,” McDonald said. “Just saying I’m going to come at every hitter with everything that I can. I’ve started in the past in my career, I’ve done a little bit of everything. In a starting role you pace yourself a little more, but coming in at the back end of a bullpen with guys on, it’s full go. I’m going to put my best against your best and hopefully I’ll come out on top.”
“He’s always in the zone, he’s getting ahead of hitters,” Szefc said. “He might have our most raw talent on the mound. This past summer when he got comfortable coming out the back end, I think he kind of made that mental transition in his head. His [stuff] in a short stint could be our best raw stuff.”
It was a welcome sight for the Hokies to return to Blacksburg. Virginia Tech’s first seven games had been on the road. In the most recent tournament in New Orleans, the Hokies went 1-2, beating Ball State, but losing to Iowa and New Orleans. There’s no rest for weary. After a few days off, the Hokies will play eight games in 10 days with five games coming at the Westin Lake Mary Stetson Invitational in DeLand, Florida, and then a three-game series at home against Pittsburgh.
“It is a grind,” Szefc said. “We’ll normally schedule a Tuesday/Wednesday over the spring break, and we’re down in Florida, so it’s a good opportunity for us to play games in warm weather. We’ll just try to rely on getting good pitching, playing good defense, and trying to do a little better job of executing in situational hitting.”
Virginia Tech’s next game is March 2 versus Stetson, with its next home game coming on March 9. Renovations continue to come along on English Field at Union Park, and fans could get the opportunity to sit behind the plate during the series against Pittsburgh.