Several years ago, I was in Las Vegas for a bachelor’s party, and I decided to bet on a baseball game. It seemed like the perfect bet at the time, and looking back, I’d do the same thing over again if given a chance.
The Braves were in first place in the NL East, and they were playing the Padres, who at the time were in dead last in the NL West, and on that particular day the Padres were throwing a starter who had an ERA over 7.00. It wasn’t a small sample size, either. He had been in the majors all season. To top it off, the game was in Atlanta.
Surely the Braves would easily cover that 1.5 run spread, right? They were going to tag that sorry pitcher for a bunch of runs. The guy had an ERA of over 7.00 for a reason. So I bet on it. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And then I lost the bet. The Braves won, but they only won 1-0. For whatever reason, they couldn’t hit against a guy who everyone else had smoked all season. It was just one of those days. That pitcher (Jordan Lyles) ended up getting waived later that season, and he now plays Quadruple-A baseball for the Baltimore Orioles.
That’s sort of what Sunday’s anti-climactic Super Regional Game Three reminded me. Nah, Tech probably still wouldn’t have won even if they had hit Oklahoma starter Cade Horton. The Hokies didn’t pitch well enough. But let’s focus on that matchup anyway. Virginia Tech is one of the best hitting teams in the country by any metric that you use, and they were facing a redshirt freshman with a high ERA (5.88 after Sunday’s start) who had pitched more than five innings just twice all season. This was the Braves vs. the Padres all over again. We know what was supposed to happen. Except it didn’t. Horton was magnificent, pitching six innings and holding Virginia Tech to a season-low two hits.
I’m glad I didn’t bet on it. It happens. That’s baseball. However, a closer look at the metrics showed that Horton was trending in the right direction. Here are his last three starts, including Sunday’s game against Virginia Tech…
Texas: 5.1 innings, 1 earned runs, 2 hits, 2 walks, 9 strikeouts
Florida: 6.1 innings, 2 earned runs, 7 hits, 2 walks, 8 strikeouts
VT: 6 innings, 2 earned runs, 2 hits, 2 walks, 8 strikeouts
The longest three outings of his career have been his last three games. He’s trending up, and after struggling early, it looks like he’s finally figured out how to pitch. That means his season ERA of 5.88 is probably misleading.
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech’s pitching is trending down. Friday night starter Griffin Green lasted just one inning, and the Hokies basically had to pitch a bullpen game as a result. Things were outta whack, as Frank Beamer would have said, from the very beginning.
Go easy on Green, by the way. He was pitching hurt. John Szefc confirmed to reporters after Friday’s game that Green has a blister on his middle finger that impacted his performance. But I’ve heard he’s done damage to one of his fingers (either his index or middle finger), and I don’t mean a blister. I mean there is structural damage that is leading to a significant amount of pain. Pain killers don’t work because his hand gets numb and he can’t feel the ball. That’s why he was all over the place on Friday, and even if the Hokies had won the series, I don’t think he would have been able to pitch in Omaha.
It’s a tough break. After last season’s brutal run of luck on the injury front, the 2022 season had balanced that out as the Hokies had been able to stay healthy all season long. Up until the end, that is, when their Friday night starter got hurt. It’s a tough time to have that happen. In hindsight, Tech probably shouldn’t have started Green on Friday, particularly considering how well the bullpen ended up pitching for those eight innings of baseball. But that’s hindsight.
All the numbers and metrics indicated that Tennessee was the best team in baseball. Behind the Vols, the Hokies were one of a small handful of teams that could have been considered the second-best team in baseball. Guess what? Like the Hokies, the Volunteers got knocked out on their home field by unseeded Notre Dame. The No. 1 overall seed has won the National Championship just once in the modern era, which was Miami in 1999. That’s just the nature of playoff baseball. There’s a reason nine different teams have won the World Series in the last nine years. In playoff baseball, everybody is very good, and somebody has to lose. Virginia Tech was a really good team that happened to lose to another really good team. It could have just as easily been the other way around. I sure with that it was, because with Tennessee out of it I think the road is wide open to the National Championship.
A great season has come to and end, and now it’s important that the program build on it. I’m not saying that Tech is going to be as good next year, because it probably isn’t. The Hokies are losing a ton of talent to the MLB Draft next month. However, it’s important to sustain the momentum of the program. The last time they made the NCAA Tournament, they got knocked out by Oklahoma in Regionals, and then the Sooners added insult to injury by poaching VT head coach Pete Hughes. Combine that with Tech’s poor facilities and the fact that Jim Weaver didn’t replace Hughes with a quality coach, the program actually went backwards after that NCAA Tournament appearance.
Things are different this time, though. The old English Field wasn’t as nice as some high school stadiums, but English Field at Atlantic Union Bank Park is a very nice facility and an enjoyable place to watch a game. The Hokies have a proven head coach, and they are backing him with financial support. He recently gave his top three assistants new titles (which means they got raises, I suspect), Whit Babcock has made major financial investments into player development, and there’s more coming, too.
You might be wondering about that pile of dirt behind the left field wall. Tech has broken ground a new pitching lab that I believe will be ready later this year, and future plans also include a baseball-only weight room at some point. The program is on much more stable ground than it was back in 2013. The Hokies have an AD who knows baseball, and Babcock hired proven winner in John Szefc, who doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere either because Babcock is financially supporting the program.
The program has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. The Virginia Tech administration has done everything they can possibly do to be relevant in baseball, and it appears to have worked. Hosting regionals and Super Regionals, winning the Coastal Division and being the No. 4 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament should open recruiting doors that weren’t open before, with both high school players and portal guys. Any potential recruit now knows that he can accomplish all of his goals by playing baseball for Virginia Tech. That certainly wasn’t always the case, but it is definitely true now.
Of course, he can accomplish his goals at just about any other ACC program as well. This is a loaded conference, and if you aren’t moving forward, you are falling behind. The Hokies are moving forward right now in terms of facilities and program support, and it’s likely that we’ll see more consistent results in the future than we have in the past.
I’m also hopeful that the last two weekends continue to open the eyes of the fanbase that baseball can be fun in Blacksburg. There’s nothing anybody can do about the weather in Blacksburg for much of March and April, but when the weather is good, what’s stopping you from tailgating for baseball? That’s what we did over the weekend, and I thought it was fun. It could be even more fun with more experience and more advanced planning.
The last few months have been fun for the fanbase, and that came after a long period that wasn’t particularly fun. Probably the lowest point was December of 2020, and though it was fun watching the basketball and softball teams have success in the winter and spring of 2021, I think most of us knew what was coming with football season. Now that the head coaching issue is in the rear-view mirror, it’s a lot easier to sit back, be content, and enjoy what we’ve gotten over the last few months…
1: ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament Champions
2: Softball No. 3 overall seed, Regionals and Super Regionals
3: Baseball No. 4 overall seed, Regionals and Super Regionals
That’s big-time success. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, and don’t get too caught up in the whole National Championship thing, either. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be a goal, but at the same time, comparison is the thief of joy. I’m sitting here trying to imagine what it would be like going into the softball or baseball tournaments expecting to win the National Championship. Somehow I don’t think I’d have the same appreciation for those two teams if I expected things like that, which would be a shame. Yeah, I want to win one just like you all do, but I’m not going to let it affect how I view each of Tech’s programs or the athletic department as a whole.
In the past, we’ve seen the Virginia Tech softball and baseball programs achieve a high level of success, but both times they weren’t able to capitalize on it. Tech softball couldn’t capitalize on the Angela Tincher era, and the baseball program went backwards after Pete Hughes left in 2013. This time is different, though. Both programs are in a much better position to take advantage of their recent success and push forward. The facilities are better, the coaching is better and the financial support is better. Hopefully baseball in June is something we all get used to in the future.