The latest attempt for No. 5 Virginia Tech at a winning formula, at a time when one will have to click, proved to be simple, effective and able to hold off one of the more dangerous teams in the country.
It began with Jordan Geber on the bump, who turned in another quick – but excellent – start. It ended with Kiernan Higgins picking up the final five outs and stranding the tying run on first base in the ninth. He racked up his fourth save of the season in a 6-4 win on Sunday afternoon at English Field over No. 7 Louisville.
That allowed the Hokies (36-11, 16-9 ACC) to leap ahead of the Cardinals (35-15-1, 16-10-1 ACC) in the standings, and it gave them their first series victory over Louisville since 1995. It’s the first since they joined the ACC in 2015 and it gave Tech its 16th ACC win, tying the most in program history. It also proved that, with the options at hand, there is a way to win Sunday games – once a struggle for Tech at the beginning of the year.
Geber faced the minimum on Wednesday in a mid-week start against Liberty and then turned around and fired four more shutout innings on Sunday. He yielded the only hit he’s surrendered in his past two starts with two outs in the third.
“Everything was working,” Geber said after the win. “Once I kicked my cold after the Virginia series, I would have my feel back for my fastball. I just kept believing in myself and having confidence in myself.”
The offense, revved by Gavin Cross’s two run homer – his second in as many days – in the fourth inning and boosted by Jack Hurley’s go-ahead single in the sixth, tacked on three insurance runs over the final three frames. That followed Jonah Hurney’s dominant outing – he surrendered two unearned runs in the fifth – and Higgins recorded his first save since April 23 at Boston College.
Tech head coach John Szefc pressed all the right buttons once again. And, like it has all season, a good process became a good result.
“You get contributions from a lot of guys,” Szefc said. “It’s not just one or two guys. I mean, Geber is an emerging starting pitcher … The last two days, [Carson] DeMartini has had two-out hits in the ninth to provide insurance. That’s huge, it’s a whole different game.”
Even though the Hokies dropped the first game of the weekend series on Friday, 8-1, their urgency didn’t waver. They’ve been healthy all year and believe that their nine will come out and beat your nine any day of the week. They’ve stuck to that all year – even if they weren’t on the national radar to begin the year.
“Well, we’ve done it against Wright State, we’ve done it against Pitt,” Szefc said, referring to the two series his team has won after dropping the opener. “[Louisville] is pretty high-caliber. I’m just really happy for our guys, that’s a mental test.”
Virginia Tech still continues to play like one of college baseball’s best clubs, where winning has become the expectation. But the pressure to do so left the third base dugout at English Field long ago, and instead was replaced with a lot of high-fives, many home run hammers and the yells of, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” when a run comes across to score.
Yet, now the stakes are way back up. There was the expectation of making the NCAA Tournament when the season began. Now, the Hokies might have put themselves in the driver’s seat to host a Regional – and quite possibly a Super Regional. On top of that, they control their own destiny to the College World Series.
That’s because of the way they’ve handled themselves throughout conference play. Since they were swept by Georgia Tech in mid-March, all the Hokies have done is rattle off 26 wins in their last 31 games and win eight-straight conference series – six of them to top-25 teams.
Their latest attempt in Sunday’s rubber match began with Geber’s five strikeouts in four shutout innings. Since his dud against Virginia on May 1, he’s fired seven shutout and given up just one hit in the two starts since.
He was taken out in a scoreless game, but that’s when Virginia Tech was able to get it going against Cardinals starter Carson Liggett. In the fourth, Cross lifted a two-run home run — one that found the Louisville bullpen with a 37-degree launch angle — after Nick Biddison reached on a hit-by-pitch. It was just enough to give Tech a 2-0 lead for the bullpen to manage the rest of the way.
“I feel like I’ve been on time lately,” Cross said. “I was just trying to come up with the big swing. I’m not trying to hit homers, I’m just trying to find the pitch to hit, and the last two days, I’ve gotten it and haven’t missed it.”
That’s when Hurney came out of the bullpen and yielded the two unearned runs once Lucas Donlon booted a potential inning-ending ground out in the fifth. It gave way to Dalton Rushing’s two-RBI single with the bases loaded that pulled the Cardinals even with Tech.
Hurney worked out of it after getting Cameron Masterman to strike out, and then he set down the next six hitters he faced in the sixth and seventh innings. That gave way to Hurley’s go-ahead single in the bottom of the sixth that scored Cross, who got on base via a one-out single, his second of three hits on the day.
Tech added two more insurance runs on Biddison’s RBI triple that found the right-center field gap, which drove in Carson DeMartini. Cross followed that up with his third hit and RBI of the day in the bottom of the seventh, which increased Tech’s lead to 5-2.
Those runs proved to be crucial once Graham Firoved yielded two runs out of the bullpen in the eighth. He recorded the first out, but surrendered a solo home run to Dalton Rushing and a walk to Masterman. The Cardinals had pulled to within two runs, 5-3, and that’s what ended Firoved’s day in favor of Higgins.
He yielded a single that scored Chris Seng, who pinch-ran for Masterson, but quickly got the final two outs of the inning.
Tech added another run in the eighth once Cade Hunter singled to lead-off the frame and later stole second with two outs. That gave DeMartini the chance to single him home and give the Hokies another insurance run, 6-4.
Then, Higgins closed the door in the ninth, but not before a little drama unfolded. He struck out Issac Humphrey on three pitches. Next, he hit Brandon Anderson with a pitch and gave up a one-out single to Ben Bianco to put the tying-run on first.
Higgins locked in and quickly recorded the final two outs. One was a deep fly ball to left-center that Cross was able to chase down, and then Higgins got Ben Metzinger to weakly ground out to Schobel at short.
In what proved to be the weakness last year, the bullpen has been the strength this year. The relievers for Virginia Tech have been rock solid this season, rarely blowing saves, and can carry a game when a starting pitcher isn’t able to give it his best effort. It’s funny, almost ironic, how that works sometimes.
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One the best quotes I heard from the great Skip Caray during a broadcast of one of the Braves games in their worst to first season in ’91(?): Every team wins 54 games and every team loses 54 games. it’s the other 54 games that matter…
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