After a slow start to the season, Virginia Tech baseball has won five of the past six games to improve to 8-8.
Through 16 games, the Hokies’ pitching has been vastly improved. Last year, Virginia Tech had a team ERA of 5.82 as opposed to 4.89 so far this year.
“In general, we’ve gotten a pretty good amount of good starts when we’ve needed them,” said Head Coach John Szefc. “We need a little more consistency out of our bullpen. We need more true contributors. We have a couple guys kind of scratching the surface. I think we’re pitching a little better than I thought we would at this stage of the game. We’re still a work in progress.”
Since the 3-7 start to the season, the Hokies have really seen an uptick in their hitting. In the first 10 games, Virginia Tech averaged 4.2 runs per game. Over the past six games, the Hokies have averaged 7.7 runs per game.
“I think our at bats got a little bit better,” Szefc said. “They got more productive, more tough at bats. We’ve really run the bases well, a lot more aggressively. We’ve gone first to third very well, putting a lot more pressure on the defense cutting our strikeouts down. We’ve really just been able to score more runs for our pitching. A good example is when we played Iowa and Stetson. We faced two really, really good arms there and scored one run a game. You’re not going to win much if you’re scoring one run a game.”
Over the weekend, Szefc achieved a milestone, winning his 400th career game as head coach. His journey has taken an unconventional route, beginning his head coaching career in 1996 in Marist, then taking a 10 year break as an assistant before becoming the head coach at Maryland in 2012.
“I went 22 years between win one and 400,” Szefc said. “For me, being able to go from a small mid-major program to this kind of level, working in the Big 12 as an assistant to working at Maryland to going to a couple super regionals to this. I think as a coach, you are who you are. The best coaches accept who they are and how they coach. You just accept who you are and take new ideas from different assistants and just try to make it work. I think the experience helps a lot. Working at different places over the years has helped prepare me to make one jump after another. The years I spent at Marist were really, really valuable to me.”
Szefc earned his 400th career win after freshman Ian Seymour became the first freshman in Virginia Tech history to strike out 10 batters in an ACC game since 2005. Seymour’s final line in the 3-1 victory over Pitt was 7.0 innings pitched, 4 hits, 1 ER, and 10 strikeouts.
Connor Coward had a similarly impressive performance the day before in Friday’s 4-1 win against Pitt. Coward tied the school record for most strikeouts in an ACC game, fanning 12 Panthers. The righty from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has been nothing short of impressive this year, compiling a 1.93 ERA in four starts with 36 strikeouts over 28.0 innings pitched.
“Two things, when he loses his feel of the strike zone, and he’s done that less than a handful of times, he’s always gotten it back right within the same inning,” Szefc said. “The second thing, again I haven’t seen him pitch last year so I can just see numbers, but his command and how he locates in the zone has been his biggest asset. He’ll attack hitters and charge hitters which is really important. He’s a mentally tough kid. For him to go out there on Fridays and represent our team, which your Friday starter, that’s what he does. He’s your team’s identity.”
Perhaps even more noteworthy was Luke Scherzer taking the mound for the first time since May 19, 2015. The Powhatan, Virginia native sat out the past two seasons with Tommy John Surgery. Scherzer started the game against Central Michigan, pitching one inning, giving up no runs, and striking out two batters in the 7-4 victory.
“I was really just happy for him that he could come back and have the success he had,” Szefc said. “I haven’t been through the ups and downs with Luke like some of the guys on our team have. I actually think they appreciated it even more. You just feel really good for the kid and his family. Selfishly, our team needs Luke to be good. Hopefully we’ll get to a point where we can use him more than once a week.”
Following the cancellation of the mid-week Bryant game due to the Blacksburg weather, the Hokies will head south to battle Georgia Tech this weekend in another key ACC series. The Yellow Jackets got swept in their opening ACC series at Clemson.
“I just hope we can be consistent,” Szefc said. “We had our best week of the season last week. We won a lot of different ways. It all starts with our pitching and defense. If we can pitch effectively and locate and play clean defense behind our pitchers, then we’ll be in every game we play. And if we can’t then we won’t, as was the case in the last game on Sunday. As we play more games, the more consistent we can be with our pitching and our defense and our tough at bats, the more success we’ll have. We’ve played 12 out of 16 games away from home, so the whole road thing isn’t a big issue for us. We’re pretty well prepared to go down and play these guys.”
First pitch is expected to take place at 6:00 PM Friday night as Connor Coward will toe the rubber and look to build off his hot start.
2-1 L vs. Stetson (DeLand, FL)
12-5 L vs. Purdue (DeLand, FL)
4-3 W vs. Central Michigan (DeLand, FL)
18-7 W vs. Wagner (DeLand, FL)
7-4 W vs. Western Michigan (DeLand, FL)
4-1 W vs. Pitt (Blacksburg)
3-1 W vs. Pitt (Blacksburg)
15-10 L vs. Pitt (Blacksburg)