Maybe Carson Jones will no longer mash a home run in every four plate appearances near the bottom of the lineup for No. 2 Virginia Tech – that would be a huge ask. He’s currently on a tear that only seems possible because he did it. Five homers in four games? Yes, that happened at English Field this past week for the Hokies.
He did it out of nowhere, too. He had only started once all year prior to last Tuesday’s win over Kansas State. That was back on March 13 in the first game of a doubleheader at Georgia Tech – he walked and then was pinch-hit for. In the two months until May 17, Jones appeared in four games, all either as a pinch-hitter or defensive substitution.
But his emergence gives his head coach a new toy to play with – in a playbox full of them – entering this week’s ACC Tournament, next week’s NCAA Regional round and potentially a Super Regional and the College World Series.
John Szefc inserted him into the lineup prior to the Hokies’ matchup with Kansas State. The headline going into last Tuesday was Pete Hughes’s first visit to Blacksburg since leaving Virginia Tech to coach at Oklahoma after VT’s 2013 Regional loss to the Sooners. But coming out, the story was Jones, and he continued to chronicle it over the weekend.
“It’s definitely a different mind set, having to come off the bench versus starting,” Jones said on Thursday. “It’s kind of tough – getting out there in a rhythm and out there playing is important. I didn’t get that during the season, but now I am, so I’m just going to run with it.”
His move into the order coincided with Virginia Tech’s sweep over Duke this past weekend and a Coastal Division title. That shouldn’t minimize how good the rest of the lineup has been. Jones’s historic week, though, would finish with an ACC Co-Player of the Week award.
Jones’s first homer came last Tuesday – nothing too special. He drove an 0-2 change-up that was left belt-high to the opposite way over the left field wall in the second. A solo home run in an 8-2 win didn’t leave the biggest mark on the scoreboard that day, but it was enough for Szefc to pencil him in the lineup on Thursday.
“I was excited,” Jones said on Friday after learning he was starting against Kansas State Tuesday. “I wanted the opportunity to get out there and show [the team] what I’ve been working on the last couple months. I feel like I did that.”
In his first ACC start since that March 13 loss to Georgia Tech, Jones would one-up his performance on Thursday. He hit two home runs, including one that brought Tech back to within two runs in the bottom of the fourth, 7-5. Then he smoked another to center field an inning later that became the game-winning swing that put his team back on top for good, 10-9. Tech won 15-11.
With a 1-0 lead heading into the bottom of the seventh inning on Friday, Cade Hunter led off the inning with a single to right. Jones, who was moved up from the eight-hole to the seven spot, crushed his fourth home run of the week – this one to right field. It proved, again, to be the game-winning swing when Duke tallied its first run in the eighth in the Hokies’ 6-1 victory.
“I’ve just been sticking to my approach,” Jones said after Friday’s victory. “I think right now the ball is looking pretty good, obviously, and sticking to what [Kurt] Elbin said we needed to do today. It’s been working so I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”
And for an encore on Saturday, with VT up 4-2 in the seventh, he hit his fourth home run that weekend – a three-run shot that put the game just about out of reach for the Blue Devils. His fifth home run in the week essentially clinched Virginia Tech’s Coastal crown, the best regular season in the ACC and the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament – all firsts in program history.
Jones was only inserted into the lineup because Kurt Elbin, Tech’s hitting and third base coach, lobbied Szefc to put him there prior to Tuesday. Szefc agreed and there Jones was: playing right field and batting seventh against Kansas State.
“[Jones] works hard and we’ve got him in the lineup,” Szefc said on Friday. “He’s wanted that spot and I couldn’t be happier for him. You could’ve said the same thing about [Lucas] Donlon when we ran him out there at Fenway Park a few weeks back, and he’s been a great contributor. … Similar situation – just Jones’s swings have been pretty sexy in terms of home runs.”
Though, it was a surprise to see Jones’s name in the lineup last Tuesday. Szefc has loyally stuck with Conor Hartigan at the designated hitter and right field spot – for the mid-week games Gavin Cross is written in as the DH – through his highs and lows throughout the season.
When Jones went deep on Tuesday, that was a bigger surprise. And when he did it four times in three days against Duke, there was shock, astonishment and disbelief in the stands, on social media and even in the pressbox.
But Jones believed in himself throughout the entire year. He kept true to his routine and knew that once his time came, he’d put on a show.