Some bonds are formed in the unlikeliest of ways. For the bond between Virginia Tech pitchers Jack Dellinger and Peyton Alford, it began unknowingly when the duo faced each other in the 2018 NJCAA World Series championship game in Grand Junction, Colorado.
With Dellinger as a member of Chipola College and Alford a part of Walters State Community College, the two squads squared off as opposing starting pitchers in the game which would decide the No. 1 team in JUCO baseball. At the time, however, Dellinger and Alford were unaware that they’d be teammates at the Division I level in just a few months.
Virginia Tech pitching coach Ryan Fecteau watched the game on a webcast, but only to take a look at Alford at the moment. It wasn’t until later that the Hokies pursued Dellinger and realized he pitched in the same World Series game.
“It’s funny, we actually weren’t recruiting Jack Dellinger at the time,” Fecteau said. “We recruited him after that game. I was actually just watching Peyton pitch pretty much. Got a chance to go back and watch that as well with the recruiting process with Jack.”
In the end Chipola and Dellinger triumphed by a final score of 10-7. After a stretch in the middle of the season where Indians lost five of six, they turned it around to become National Champions. Dellinger lasted just 1.1 innings, giving up two runs in the championship game, but his 61 strikeouts over 48 innings pitched during the season were a big reason for Chipola’s success.
“That was probably the best month of my life,” Dellinger said. “We went on a horrible stretch of games before the state tournament. We weren’t even thinking that we were going to win a game in states.
“It’s an incredible feeling. It’s almost indescribable… You run out of the dugout and you see your teammates dogpiling after what you just accomplished, it’s surreal. You don’t even feel your body at that point. It’s addictive.”
From the other side, Alford was charged with a no decision, striking out five and giving up five runs over 5.0 innings. It wasn’t a typical performance for Alford, who finished the season with a 9-1 record, striking out 90 over 77.0 innings, but there’s still no qualms from him about the way the season played out.
“There’s not any regrets,” Alford said. “I loved every bit of it. It was a great experience. The crowd [in the championship game] was one thing I remember, just getting after it. They had their little chants that they screamed… I really enjoyed every bit of it.”
As both Dellinger and Alford eventually made the decision to come to Blacksburg, they would get their first official introduction to each other as roommates, but that wouldn’t come before some antics first. Dellinger moved into the apartment first and proudly displayed a Chipola national champions t-shirt in Alford’s closet.
“I haven’t even met him at this point,” Dellinger said. “I don’t know what he looks like, who he is, this and that. I hung it right in his closet so I knew it’d be the first thing he’d see when he walked in.
“I wasn’t home when he moved in. I got back and Peyton was standing at the top of the stairs. I go, ‘Hey, what’s up man? I’m Jack. Nice to meet you.’ He’s just staring at me not saying a word. That’s when I realized he found the shirt. We had a good laugh about it. I’m lucky he wasn’t bigger than me or else he would have beat me up.”
For Alford, it was an unexpected start to his new journey in Blacksburg, but still one that he laughs at despite the evil intentions.
“I knew it was going to come up, but I didn’t expect the first thing when I walk in to be a Chipola shirt,” Alford said. “I knew it was going to be a fun rivalry where we pick at each other the whole time. It’s been awesome. It’s been fun to mess with each other.”
And thus began the unlikely bond that probably wouldn’t have even started without the chance encounter of battling in the JUCO World Series. It’s a bond where the mantra of opposites attracting rings true in this situation.
“They’re about as opposite as it gets,” Fecteau said. “Peyton is even-keeled, laid back demeanor. Nothing really fazes him. Jack is the loud, vocal guy on the team. Everybody sees and hears Jack. They’re both really good in their own regard.
“I think it’s been good because it’s been older leadership on our staff. Good, strong personalities that have been around the block a little bit. I’ve been really, really pleased with what they’ve brought on and off the field. They’re both still learning and growing as players and teammates. I’m excited with what they’ve been able to do this year and what they’ll be able to do in the future here too.”
While the duo may appear to have clashing personalities, it’s the shared experiences that really bring Dellinger and Alford together. The understanding of the JUCO journey is the cornerstone on which the entire relationship is built.
“We’ve been through a lot together here at Tech, yet alone as JUCO guys coming from where we came from, you kind of have a bond together,” Dellinger said. “People who just go Division I out of high school don’t know what it’s like at that level to get back to here. It’s a great relationship. We understand each other and we feed off each other. I don’t know if we’d each be having the seasons we are [having] without it.”
Alford echoed a similar sentiment.
“It’s definitely been entertaining to have a rivalry right off the bat, because we’ll compete in everything,” Alford said. “He’s definitely good to pick with and bounce things off of because we both know how the JUCO route is.
“It gives us a common ground which we compare everything to. We talk about how bad some of the things at JUCO were with some of the conditions we were put through. It makes us realize where we’re at now and how lucky we are. The biggest thing is we’ll sit around and tell stories of the things we’ve done. Either how terrible it was or how funny it was. Things like that. Then, we can just pull it back to this and say we’re not there now. It was definitely worth it.”
In the past, the issues with the pitching staff have really limited Virginia Tech’s ability to compete in tight, hard-fought ACC games. This year, however, the Hokies have seen one of the greatest improvements in team ERA across the nation. The pitching staff currently has a team ERA of 3.83, which is good for third in the entire ACC. It’s a far cry from the 5.61 ERA last year.
Greatest improvement in team ERA (Power Five only) from last season:
1. @Vol_Baseball (-1.88 change in ERA)
2. @PennStateBASE (-1.70)
3. @Husker_Baseball (-1.67)
4. @HokiesBaseball (-1.65)
5. @OSUBaseball (-1.58)#NCAAbaseball
— College Baseball Analytics (@ncaa_base_stat) April 26, 2019
Dellinger, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound right hander, says he’s “throwing with a velocity I’ve never had before.” He’s pitched 30.2 innings and struck out 31 batters with a 4.70 ERA. Meanwhile, Alford uses a lot of movement as a 6-foot-0, 190-pound southpaw, firing 33.2 innings this year with 33 strikeouts and 3.86 ERA.
“They’ve really helped because they were both starters at the JUCO level,” Fecteau said. “They have given us some really good stability in the bullpen. It’s helped some of those younger guys develop out there too instead of us having to go out and throw freshmen in really high leverage situations. We have some older guys that have been there and done that. The last game they pitched in junior college, there was 10,000 fans at that game. They’re not really fazed by it.”
As Virginia Tech hits the home stretch of the season with just two ACC series remaining, they are still fighting for a spot in the conference tournament. A monumental opportunity begins this Saturday with a three-game series at home against Boston College. The Eagles currently lead the Hokies by just one game in the conference standings for the last spot in the ACC Tournament.
Fecteau will be looking for continual improvement during this time from his pitching staff, including both Dellinger and Alford.
“The big thing with our guys, I want them to get stronger as the year went on,” Fecteau said. “Last year, I thought we got weaker as it went on. Coach [Brian] Neal, our strength and conditioning coach, he’s a big reason why our pitching staff has been able to stay the way it’s been.
“I just want to see [Dellinger and Alford] finish strong. I think they’re in a really good place physically, mentally, where they should be able to give this thing a good push to the finish line.”
With the junior season for both Dellinger and Alford quickly coming to a close, the duo is preparing for the stretch run ahead. Still, it hasn’t stopped Dellinger from brandishing his championship ring around the apartment or the friendly rivalry that exists between the pair.
“It’s a bond that really can’t be replicated or broken,” Dellinger said.