Pitching, Lucas Donlon Give No. 5 Virginia Tech A Season Sweep over Liberty

Lucas Donlon got a well-deserved Gatorade bath on Wednesday night at English Field. (Virginia Tech sports photography)

To celebrate its fourth straight win, No. 5 Virginia Tech jumped over the dugout rail, many with hands raised, and headed out to drench Lucas Donlon with a Gatorade bath in center field.

Flashback a few moments and you’ll see Donlon rope a soft line drive that landed just beyond where the outfield grass meets the artificial dirt between the shortstop and the third baseman, which drove in Eduardo Malinowski for the game-winning run.

It was good for a 2-1 final score on a Wednesday night at English Field that, until the ninth, wouldn’t bend for any Hokie. That was until the ninth inning. 

A one-out hit-by-pitch that Tanner Schobel wore off the elbow. A passed ball that allowed the Tech shortstop to move up to second. Malinowski’s game-tying RBI single through the right side, and then Donlon’s decisive swing with the bases-loaded three batters later off of Cade Hungate on a pitch up near his hands.

“It felt unreal, to be honest,” Donlon said minutes after his game-winning knock. “This team has something about it. [We] never give up, never out of the game. No lead is ever too big for us. All of us in the locker room believe in that, too.”

Wednesday marked another solid RPI win over Liberty, who’s ranked No. 40, as VT swept the season series over the Flames for the first time since 2011. And it was the second walk-off win in back-to-back games after Carson DeMartini’s ground-rule double in a 3-2 win over Villanova on Sunday

The Hokies are now 34-10 (14-8 ACC) – their most wins since their 40-win season in 2013 – sitting in third-place in the ACC with No. 7 Louisville coming to town this weekend. Against Liberty, they were led by a quartet of pitchers that allowed the single unearned run, and scratched across two runs when it mattered most.

Tanner Schobel was fired up after tying Wednesday night’s game. (Virginia Tech sports photography)

“I guess you could say it is,” head coach John Szefc said when asked about if it’s Tech’s year. “That was about as well-pitched of a game as you’ll ever see – for both sides. … We didn’t have to [burn through our bullpen] against a team like Liberty. We had some good at-bats in the ninth.”

By logging the first three innings on 38 pitches, Jordan Geber bounced back from his first dud this year on May 1 at Virginia, where he allowed four runs in 1+ innings. On Wednesday, he faced the minimum in his three innings while striking out four on 27 strikes. Pitching coach Ryan Fecteau didn’t run him out for longer to leave him ready for the weekend against the Cardinals.

He rediscovered his groove without any trouble and has been exactly what Szefc has asked for after struggling to find a Sunday starter for the better part of the year. Geber worked two solid starts on April 16 against Miami and on April 24 at Boston College and has been Tech’s third option since.

“He was really, really big for us,” Szefc said of Geber. “We’re just trying to get him on track to be a quality starter. He faces a good lineup and only faces nine hitters. We probably could’ve run him out for the fourth but [pitching coach Ryan] Fecteau talked about getting him out after two-or-three innings to keep him ready for the weekend.”

For the first two innings, Geber and Liberty’s starter Trey Gibson traded zeros on the scoreboard. Yet, despite Gibson yielding a lead-off single to Nick Biddison in the first then walking Cade Hunter in the second inning, neither made it past first base. For the third, Cole Garrett struck out a batter on seven pitches out of the bullpen.

After going down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the third, Ryan Metz came out of the bullpen and got two quick outs on four pitches via a ground ball and a fly ball. Then, it looked like he had worked the fourth consecutive 1-2-3 inning before Schobel waited on a ball that bounced twice. Hurried, he fired a throw that bounced in front of Donlon at first and bled into the Liberty dugout. The error allowed Three Hillier to move up to second, which allowed Derek Orndorff to single him home a batter later.

Though unearned, Ryan Metz was on the mound for the one run the Hokies gave up on Wednesday. (Virginia Tech sports photography)

Metz bounded back and forced a lineout to Malinowski at second, but the damage had been done. 

In the next half inning, Jack Hurley roped his 21st double of the year, his helmet flew off rounding second, which tied him for fifth in the nation in two-baggers with one out. But, just like Biddison and Hunter, he was left stranded.

From there, Max Alba and Dylan Cumming set down the next 10 Virginia Tech hitters in a row before Hunter reached on an error in the seventh. He, too, was left stranded once again after Christian Martin grounded out to second to end the inning.

After Metz yielded the unearned run in the fourth, he set down six of the seven batters he faced in the fifth and sixth innings. Once he departed, he had worked three innings, allowed two hits, no walks and struck out four. That’s when Chrisitan Worley, who’s delivered favorable results in his last two outings (three shutout innings), kept the door closed on the Flames’ offense.

Worley pitched the seventh and eighth, matching Cumming just about pitch-for-pitch. He worked around two runners in his outing (a two-out walk in the seventh and a two-out single in the eighth) for his third straight scoreless outing.

But the Hokies still needed a run after he, and the other two arms before him, exited. At the top of the ninth was when Szefc turned to Kiernan Higgins, a high-strikeout, hard-throwing right-hander that has emerged as one of the most trusted arms as the season’s progressed. 

He delivered with a flawless ninth inning, striking out two and inducing a soft ground ball to Schobel at short, setting up his bats to walk it off again. And when the run came, once Donlon ripped that high-and-tight fastball, it was only because of the at-bats before him.

Is this the Hokies’ year? (Virginia Tech sports photography)

“He’s tough, he never complains,” Szefc said of Donlon. “Good things happen to good people.”

It was Schobel’s hit-by-pitch, then Malinowski’s RBI knock on a two-seamer running away from his bat, where he poked the bat head out and went with the pitch to right field. 

Then it was Hunter’s first-pitch single that hung up long enough to stretch out of the reach of Liberty’s shortstop. Next was Martin’s full-count walk where he jumped ahead 3-0 before looking at strike one and fouling off strike two. He watched a pitch run high and miss the strike zone, giving a chance for Donlon to play hero.

“[In those big at-bats] it’s really focusing on my approach,” Malinowski said. “That at-bat I had in the seventh off [Cumming], he jammed me a little bit, so I knew I had to put the ball on the ground to the right side. I just backed off the plate, and tried to do my job and I got the right pitch to do it, and it worked.”

And finally, an unlikely hero, a utility infielder that’s been in-and-out of the lineup for the past two years, delivered in one of the biggest at-bats of his life.

“They just know how to win,” Szefc said. “I just don’t know what to say about it. They just do things in the clutch.”

Box Score: Link 

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