There was a point around the sixth inning inside English Field when the math, to a tee, seemed very simple: Wright State was going to face some of the best pitchers No. 4 Virginia Tech had to offer. And if the Raiders couldn’t beat Drue Hackenberg, Henry Weycker, Graham Firoved, Jonah Hurney, Christian Worley and eventually Ryan Metz, the Hokies were going to move on to the winner’s bracket semi-final.
That’s exactly what happened when all nine innings were added up. Virginia Tech (41-12) beat Wright State (30-25), 15-9, in a slugfest.
The bats woke up and Worley locked in and stabilized a struggling bullpen when he entered with the bases loaded, no outs and a 10-6 lead in the sixth. He also entered with an 11 consecutive inning scoreless streak, yielded a single that scored two runs and then struck out three hitters to close the innings with a two-run lead in hand.
Worley struck out five in his 3 ⅓ innings and ran his scoreless streak up to 13 ⅓ frames before he walked Avery Fisher with an out in the ninth and he came around to score on a two-out double that Metz surrendered. But by that point, it was already out of reach for Wright State, who trailed by seven runs heading into the ninth when Metz ended it with a four-pitch strikeout that gave the Hokies their first opening-round win since 1997.
Head coach John Szefc left nothing to chance, even with a hot-hitting Columbia team on the horizon at 7 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN+). He pushed the right buttons, including bringing Worley in for relief four batters into the sixth, and helped the Hokies start their first regional since 2013 on the right foot.
“He’s been tremendous,” Szefc said of Worley after Tech’s win on Friday. “Tonight, against Clemson, at [Virginia] – and I’m probably forgetting one in there – it’s not like he’s been pitching against poor teams, he’s been pitching against good teams in tight situations. None bigger than tonight in the NCAA Tournament, and he’s been effective.”
When the Hokies arrived on Friday, when they took stock of their pool play split in the ACC Tournament a week ago — a blowout win against Clemson last Thursday, followed by their worst loss of the year on Friday to North Carolina — they could take comfort in the simple fact: It was only one game. It didn’t end their season. It stung, wasn’t pretty, but it certainly tightened them up, but there was little reason to breathe in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings.
“Baseball is baseball,” outfielder Gavin Cross said. “We had one bad game in Charlotte, but the offense has been good all year. Sticking with the plan the coaches gave us and going out there and playing as hard as we can.”
Hackenberg, who cruised through seven innings against the Raiders on March 6, had little problem for the first three innings. That was until he yielded two runs in the fourth and then three in the fifth.
He came out after four-plus innings — he yielded a walk, then set up a double play until Carson DeMartini threw the baseball into right field, and finally a two-run double that brought Wright State a run away, 5-4. By then, Szefc had seen enough.
Virginia Tech had given him a five-run lead to protect right away.
Cross smoked a 432-foot homer over the right field scoreboard. Then he added his third of five RBIs with a single in the second inning that scored Lucas Donlon and moved Nick Biddison to third. He stole second, which prompted the catcher to throw down, giving Biddison enough time to scoot home. And finally, Cade Hunter added his 16th home run of the year on a solo shot off the batter’s eye in the third.
But then, Hackenberg struggled. Weycker, who’s been a workhorse out of the bullpen all season, yielded a walk with a runner on second in the fifth. Then a catcher’s interference on a groundout to first loaded the bases with no outs, ending Weycker’s day after 10 pitches. That’s when Firoved surrendered a sacrifice fly and then struck out the next two hitters, which kept the score tied at five.
And then the Hokies’ bats exploded in the bottom of the fifth. Jack Hurley and Hunter reached to begin the inning. With an out, Carson Jones knocked in the first of his two RBI doubles. Next, Lucas Donlon and DeMartini reached on two separate safety squeezes that scored a run apiece. Then, Biddison — his third of five hits — and Cross — who also picked up five knocks — both drove in a run.
That gave the Hokies’ dugout, quiet for most of the UNC loss, a reason to bang on the padded railing and bring back the “Hey! Hey! Hey’s!” each time a player scored a run. The Hokies took a 10-5 lead and led by at least two the rest of the way.
The big remaining question was how far could Firoved go and how Szefc could use his bullpen. Firoved has thrown multiple innings all season — it wasn’t a new task for him. But he yielded a lead-off walk and a single to begin the sixth. Hurney was next out of the bullpen and quickly surrendered an RBI double and another walk to load the bases.
With a 10-6 lead, Szefc turned to Worley to get the Hokies to the seventh. He struck out Gehrig Anglin, yielded a two-RBI single and then struck out the last two hitters of the inning.
“I know the bases were loaded when I came in in the sixth and I just tried to slow the game down and let my stuff do its thing,” Worley said.
Szefc stuck with Worley for the seventh and he rewarded the decision in a 10-8 game with another scoreless inning. In the bottom half, VT added another run on Hurley’s sacrifice fly to left that scored Biddison.
Worley then, again, pitched another inning, this time with a three-run lead. He worked around a two-out walk in the eighth to run his scoreless streak to 13 innings, and then his offense rewarded him with four more runs to push the lead to 15-8.
He went out for the ninth, but after surrendering a one-out walk, his night was done. Worley shook Szefc’s hand when he met him on the mound — a clear thank you from his head coach for stabilizing the pitching when it needed it the most.
“I struggled at the beginning of the year, and I knew I had to flip a switch,” Worley said. “I think [against] JMU, I came in and closed the game during the year. After that, something switched.”
Worley and Szefc watched Metz record the final two outs — once after yielding a two-out double that scored a run, ending Worley’s scoreless streak. But leading 15-9, Metz struck out the final hitter and Biddison slapped Virginia Tech’s sticker on the oversized cardboard bracket.
“Just a really well-fought game,” Szefc said. “If you like college baseball, that was a good game to watch. … Not a lot that happened tonight surprised me.”
The Hokies will only go as far as their arms will take them. Friday’s result kept them alive and well.