There’s still snow on the ground and ice hanging from the trees, but Virginia Tech baseball is ready to open its season on Sunday at home in a doubleheader against Kent State. It’s now the fourth year for head coach John Szefc and his staff in Blacksburg.
Through the first two seasons in a major rebuilding job, the Hokies went 21-33 and 26-27, respectively. Last year, Virginia Tech was 11-5 with a perfect 8-0 home record before COVID-19 swept across the nation and shut down the college baseball season.
The Hokies were left wondering “What if?” as the progress in year three came to a screeching halt.
“With the whole pandemic thing, we just didn’t get to play a whole lot last year,” Szefc said. “It kind of stunted some guys’ growth a little bit on the field.
“I think the culture part of it would be a little more advanced if we were able to play a whole season last year and played in a postseason and had some success. I think success on the field breeds belief… There will always be that question mark of if you did play and have success and played a full season last year, how much more would that have helped you now?”
With the abrupt ending to the season, the NCAA did allow seniors to come back for an extra year of eligibility. Three Hokies decided to take advantage of the rule in outfielder Tanner Thomas and pitchers Peyton Alford and Jaison Heard.
“It’s been really invaluable for us,” Szefc said. “All three of those guys have had really good falls and preseasons and been three of our best players, which is helpful. It’s not like guys just came around to hang around and grab meal money. These guys are three of our better players. They’re also really good attitude guys, and they do set a little bit of the pulse for the group.”
The NCAA also passed down a ruling granting roster relief for the 2021 college baseball season. Instead of the normal 35-man roster, there will be no cap on the roster size. The roster expansion comes with its fair share of pros and cons that will be addressed throughout the season.
“Everybody’s rosters are a little bit bigger than they’ve been in the past,” Szefc said. “It’s manageable. It will be a little bit tougher when you start the season because everybody has been playing up until now in intrasquad games. Now you’re going to get in a situation where you have to put a lineup up there. It’s always difficult putting a lineup up or a travel roster up, but this year you’re going to have more guys who aren’t going to be in the lineup or in the travel roster. We’ve already talked about that. It’s the reality of what the season brings.”
Pitching coach Ryan Fecteau returns to command the pitching staff for a fourth consecutive year. Here’s a brief look at the marked improvement seen under him the past three seasons.
|Year||ERA||Opponent BA||K to BB Ratio|
|2019||3.98||.243||495/254 = 1.95|
|2020||3.05||.225||188/57 = 3.30|
It all starts with a philosophy on the mound that his pitchers, not the opposing hitter, is in control.
“I just want them to go out with confidence,” Fecteau said. “They’ve put in the work. Just to be as aggressive as they possibly can and attack hitters. That’s really what I’m looking for.
“I think we started to get a little bit of an identity of what we want with the pitching staff. You’ve just got to do it every year because the other teams in our league, that’s what they do. As good as you might feel about your group, the guys on the other side feel just as good. I think that’s the thing, just being able to maintain consistency.”
Last year’s ace Ian Seymour was selected in the second round (57th overall) of the 2020 MLB Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays, but the Hokies still return a duo of weekend starters in Chris Gerard and Anthony Simonelli.
In four starts last year, Gerard finished with a 1.57 ERA over 23.0 innings pitched with 29 strikeouts to just four walks. Meanwhile, Simonelli tallied a 2.95 ERA over 21.1 innings pitched in his first year with the Hokies as a Coastal Carolina transfer. He struck out 26 batters with 13 walks.
“Simo, another year with us has gotten a chance to get a little bigger, a little stronger as well,” Fecteau said. “He’s going to benefit a little more with the velocity. Chris has refined some of the pitches and added to his repertoire, which was already pretty big. He’s got a lot of options, a lot of different weapons he’s developed that I think will really help him this year. I think they are as good as they were last year, and I think they’ve developed and gotten a little better to be quite honest.”
That third weekend starter spot is still up for grabs, but Peyton Alford could be the man for the job. Last year, Alford didn’t start a game but was tied for the team lead with nine appearances out of the bullpen.
“We’re thinking Peyton Alford is a guy who has a very similar pitching style to Ian,” Fecteau said. “He’s got a chance to really solidify the weekend for us. It might be one of those deals where we don’t need that Sunday guy to go out and go six or seven innings. He might just need to get through the lineup once or twice if he’s going good.”
Another player to keep an eye on is the Citadel transfer, Shane Connolly. In four starts last year with the Citadel, Connolly finished with a 3.29 ERA in 27.1 innings pitched, struck out 27 batters, and walked 12.
“Even though he’s an older guy, I think that’s going to be a good addition for us because he’s got a lot of experience,” Fecteau said. “He pitched on the weekend for them for several years.”
Looking at the bullpen, Jaison Heard is the player most likely to replace Zach Brzykcy as the go-to guy in pressure-packed situations. Heard was tied for the lead with Alford with those nine appearances last year, collecting a 2.16 ERA and .96 WHIP.
“I don’t even know if it’s even necessary to put a label on a closer,” Fecteau said. “It’s more so just who we think are guys that could stop innings. I think we have several guys who could do that. It’s just a matter of who’s available on a given day.”
There’s a number of other young arms that could get a lot of work early in their career in those scenarios with Matthew Siverling, Henry Weycker, Grant Umberger and Samuel Rochard chief among them.
“Sam Rochard has made a huge jump,” Fecteau said. “He didn’t even get a chance to pitch last year, and he looks really good. He’s probably sitting 93. He has a good breaking ball. He’s been really aggressive attacking hitters. I really like what he’s doing. We’ve got a bunch of young guys, but I think Grant Umberger is one that’s going to have a chance to pitch some meaningful innings this year, maybe down the road be that starter type guy if he can develop into it.”
“As far as pitchers go, you might say a guy like Henry Weycker, a left-handed reliever last year, he’s made a pretty considerable jump from last year to now,” Szefc said. “He pitched significant innings last year as a first-year freshman. He should have a definite, definite role. I’m not exactly sure what yet, but he should absolutely pitch innings for us that matter a lot.”
Last year before the season came to a halt, Virginia Tech was hitting .280 with a .376 on base percentage. Catcher Carson Taylor was a monster at the plate, putting up an otherworldly slash line of .431/.541/1.231. His departure to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the fourth round of the MLB Draft left a gaping hole in the Hokies lineup, but an amalgamation of returning pieces and newcomers has hitting coach Kurt Elbin optimistic.
“The one thing I think we have this year that we haven’t had in the past is we have a ton of athleticism,” Elbin said. “There’s right and left-handed power. There’s guys that know how to take at bats. The thing that I’ve tried to stress to them is know what you do well to try to help our team score runs. At the end of the day if we can string together really good at bats, I think our speed, our power, our athleticism will take over and I think has a chance to be really good.”
The one senior returning for Virginia Tech as a position player is outfielder Tanner Thomas. In 2020, Thomas hit .286 in 12 starts with just seven strikeouts to nine walks.
“To me, Tanner is playing like a guy who is not going to take anything for granted because he almost lost his career,” Elbin said. “The end of his career almost happened way, way before it should have. He’s having fun, he smiles, and he’s playing like an older player should. He had a really good fall, and he’s really starting to swing the bat really, really well. He provides such a steady, productive at-bat for us.”
Joining him in the outfield is two-way player Gavin Cross. Last year as a freshman, Cross was one of the most reliable players in Virginia Tech’s lineup, ending the season second on the team with a .369 batting average.
“The thing [Gavin] is doing right now, he’s swinging to do some damage,” Elbin said. “He’s such a good hand-eye guy. He would slow down to hit every and any pitch just because he saw it. Now it’s more like he’s going to swing and he’s going to go pretty fast with the barrel. If he swings through a pitch it doesn’t bother him because he’s good with two strikes. He’s just learning a lot about himself as a hitter, and that process takes a while.”
Joining them in the outfield will be a player that Elbin and Szefc both gushed about as taking the biggest step forward this offseason, sophomore Jonah Seagears.
“He has just blown up. Blown up,” Elbin said. “He’s hitting for power. I think he’s led our team in home runs. He’s hit nine or 10 home runs between the fall and the spring. He’s just an athletic presence that is going to hit in our top five. He’s probably going to start. He’s won an outfield job because of the way he played, which is such a cool story.”
Meanwhile, freshman outfielder Jack Hurley provides an intriguing bat while Brennan Reback returns after being tied for the team lead with eight steals last year.
“Jack Hurley, an outfielder, is going to push for a ton of playing time,” Elbin said. “Probably has the best tools on the team. Left-handed hitter who can run. Has just insane bat speed. Has some of the best pure bat speed I’ll coach and have ever coached.”
Third baseman Kevin Madden will return to claim his spot as will shortstop Fritz Genther. Last year, Madden led the team with three home runs. Star utilityman Nick Biddison will be out for the first few weeks of the season while still recovering from shoulder surgery.
“Kevin does a really good job of just getting hits,” Elbin said. “He’s starting to not be as pitchable. He became a little pitchable as a sophomore. I think guys knew him from that really good freshman year and started to spin the ball a little more off of him. We’ve thrown a lot of off-speed to Kevin this spring, and being a guy who is going to hit in the middle of our lineup, he’s hammered it really well. He’s made a huge jump in that he’s just not swinging at bad pitches.
“Kevin has established himself as one of the program’s best players,” Szefc added. “I would like to think one of the better third basemen in the league. I think he’s good enough that he’ll show that.”
On the right side of the infield will likely be a pair of newcomers. The towering 6-foot-5, 225-pound Texas Tech transfer TJ Rumfield will get a look at first base while freshman Tanner Schobel is expected to get the start at second base as an in-state product from Williamsburg.
“[TJ’s] just a physical left-handed hitter, but has really good strike zone awareness,” Elbin said. “He’s going to walk a lot, he’s going to hit for power, obviously he’s going to hit for average. He’s going to hit three or four for us right out of the gate. The one guy who is turning a lot of heads, too, and will get the nod at second base is Tanner Schobel. Kid out of Virginia, small sawed-off kid, but can really, really hit.”
Replacing Taylor behind the plate will be Cade Hunter. In 29 at bats last year, Hunter hit .310 with a home run and eight RBIs.
“Cade is one of the more physically blessed catchers that you’ll see in our league from left-handed hitter to good runner to physical, 6-foot-2 body, has length, can do a lot of different things,” Elbin said. “His throwing has improved, he’s caught well this spring.”
The Next Step
So where does Virginia Tech go from here? With a strong finish in ACC play last year, the Hokies could have been in position to compete in conference and potentially make an NCAA Tournament appearance. The expectation remains the same this year with a number of key pieces still in place.
“I think it could be more advanced if we played the whole year last year,” Szefc said. “But it’s fine for where it is because we have good players in the program with good attitudes, they’re not egomaniacs, they come to work, they get their work in.
“The biggest thing in the ACC, and I saw this at Maryland, was there’s a big difference between 1-2 and 2-1 on a weekend. That’s the step we’re really at I think. I think we were getting there last year in a good place in that series at Georgia Tech on the road, and we didn’t finish that series the way we wanted to… I thought we were pretty close at that point, and I still think we’re pretty much right on the doorstep. It just has to happen. It’s as much a mental belief thing as it is a physical performance thing at this point.”