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All aboard! The Virginia Tech baseball team is off and running in the 2021 campaign. Over the weekend, the Hokies traveled south to then No. 6 Miami and took two of three from the Hurricanes, wrapping up the series Sunday with a 9-6 victory in the rubber match.
Those across college baseball took notice as Virginia Tech was elevated into the rankings for the first time since 2013, coming in at No. 24 in the D1Baseball.com Top 25.
“You’d like to think that the validation process is a little bit there,” head coach John Szefc said during Wednesday’s media session. “We’ve been working at it for three years trying to get the right guys in place. You feel like the product is getting better and better every year. A lot of it isn’t just about how talented the player is, it’s about No. 1, how good is he, but No. 2, how mentally strong is he? I think our guys showed an awful lot of that this weekend.”
Szefc and Co. were continually put in pressure-packed situations over the course of three games but never flinched. In particular, Virginia Tech’s bullpen came through time and time again in big spots.
In the first game of the series, Matthew Siverling entered the contest with a 5-3 lead and proceeded to pitch four shutout innings with six strikeouts. Shane Connolly came on for the final six outs, helping keep the Hurricanes scoreless over the final six innings and picking up the save in the process.
Jaison Heard was the key arm in Virginia Tech’s triumph on Sunday. Heard threw two shutout innings and struck out five batters to preserve a one-run lead. Connolly entered again and shut the door for a two-inning save.
Even in the 3-0 loss on Saturday, Heard and Ryan Okuda kept the Hurricanes bats at bay in relief. Virginia Tech’s bullpen surrendered just two runs over 12.1 innings pitched during the series.
“The fact that they were able to go to Miami and have success doing it, it gives them even more confidence than what they already had,” Szefc said. “You need a lot of mental strength to survive in this league. I’d rather these guys have as much confidence and have as much early season success as possible. If you have early success it hopefully should breed more of it.
“At the end of the day it’s pitcher executing pitches and it’s players making plays… I always say if you put a .240 hitter in a 3-1 count, he’s not a .240 hitter anymore. He’s pretty relaxed. The whole thing for me when you’re on the mound is ‘is the count 2-1 or is the count 1-2?’ Are you ahead or are you behind? I keep using Connolly as an example. He’s always ahead. It’s strike, strike, strike. It’s hard to come back on pitchers if you don’t walk guys. It’s hard to come back on pitchers who don’t throw balls.”
Connolly really has been the prized newcomer this year to the pitching staff. He came over from The Citadel where he was a weekend starter for two years. Now, he’s effectively become the Hokies’ closer with three saves in Virginia Tech’s five wins.
The southpaw has not allowed a run or a walk in 6.2 innings of work this year. He has struck out four batters and given up just five hits in his outings.
“There’s no emotion to him whatsoever no matter what he’s doing,” Szefc said. “He gets smoked in the back by a line drive on Friday. I get across the third base line to check him out and he looks right through me. Not a bad way, that’s just how he is. I just kind of half kiddingly tell guys he’s half dead because there’s no emotion to him. There’s nothing there. I think that’s also what makes him good. Obviously, physically he’s good, but from a mental perspective he’s a different guy.”
In Virginia Tech’s two wins against Miami, the Hokies trailed early both times. On Friday night, Miami led 2-0 after the first inning. Virginia Tech stormed back with three runs in the second behind a Cade Hunter two-run homer and never surrendered the lead again.
It was a back-and-forth affair on Sunday. Miami took 2-0 and 4-2 leads before the Hokies tied it each time. The Hurricanes went up 6-4 before Virginia Tech struck for three runs in the seventh to go ahead 7-6. Gavin Cross extended the lead to the final score of 9-6 with a two-run home run in the top of the eighth.
“One of the ingredients that I think championships teams have, at least the guys I’ve been around over the years, has been the ability to come from behind. Our guys have showed that so far,” Szefc said. “It should give our guys quite a shot of confidence if they didn’t already have it, which I think they did. If there was any doubt whatsoever, that should stop it right there.”
The Hokies’ only loss of the series even came with some bright spots. Starter Chris Gerard battled through six strong innings to give the team a chance after struggling with some hydration issues early on. Virginia Tech’s hitters were just outmatched at the plate against Miami’s star freshman Alejandro Rosario, who threw seven scoreless innings of three-hit ball.
“Rosario, the guy we faced on Saturday, is the best college arm I’ve ever seen on the field in 26 years,” Szefc said. “He’s better than any other guy I’ve ever seen. 20 years ago when I was at Marist, we faced Jeremy Guthrie in the NCAA Regionals when pitched for Stanford. He pitched in the big leagues for 13 years and was a first rounder. This guy was better.”
Sitting with a 5-1 record, Virginia Tech returns home this weekend to take on No. 25 North Carolina from English Field at Atlantic Union Bank Park. The Tar Heels are 6-1 and just took two of three from No. 12 Virginia.
In that series, North Carolina’s pitching staff allowed just five runs in the three games. Friday night starter Austin Love has been phenomenal in two starts, tossing 13.1 innings while giving up just three hits and two earned runs. He’s struck out 15 batters en route to a 2-0 record.
Now, it’s just a matter of which Virginia Tech team takes the field over the weekend. Will it be the same hungry bunch that made the trip to Coral Gables, or will it be a complacent group that is still soaking in all that praise.
“As good as it was, it was tremendous, I give them 100 percent credit for that accomplishment, but it’s over,” Szefc said. “If you’re going to hang on to that and all the other stuff, all the back pats people are giving you right now, that’s great, but you better get past it pretty quick because there’s another good team coming in here to play this weekend.”